Blur­ring the lines on TV news

Cecil Whig - - LOCAL -

Donna Brazile has been a pow­er­ful force in Demo­cratic pol­i­tics for years. She worked on the pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns of Jesse Jack­son, Wal­ter Mon­dale and Richard Gephardt, and she ran Al Gore’s 2000 cam­paign. She’s a par­ti­san, a strate­gist, an oper­a­tive — a po­lit­i­cal hack to some, a party loy­al­ist to oth­ers. What she’s not is an in­de­pen­dent, dis­pas­sion­ate an­a­lyst of the news.

She’s been play­ing one on TV, how­ever — as a talk­ing head for CNN. She was om­nipresent in the early cam­paign cov­er­age (be­fore tak­ing a leave), where she was rou­tinely iden­ti­fied merely as a “CNN com­men­ta­tor.” Then, this week, the net­work sev­ered ties with her af­ter learn­ing from hacked emails posted on Wik­iLeaks that she had sur­rep­ti­tiously fed de­bate ques­tions to the Clin­ton cam­paign dur­ing the Demo­cratic pri­maries. On Tues­day, CNN chief Jeff Zucker called Brazile’s ac­tions “un­eth­i­cal” and “dis­gust­ing.”

But re­ally, what did he ex­pect? Isn’t it ob­vi­ous that if you em­ploy “com­men­ta­tors” who are al­ready com­mit­ted par­ti­sans on one side or the other, they’re go­ing to be hard-pressed to live up to the tra­di­tional eth­i­cal stan­dards of even-handed jour­nal­ism? Pay­ing po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives to act as jour­nal­ists in­evitably cre­ates dual loy­al­ties and en­cour­ages sit­u­a­tions like this one.

Brazile un­ques­tion­ably be­haved in a du­plic­i­tous man­ner, and CNN was right to be up­set. But the big­ger prob­lem, ar­guably, is that she and a raft of other po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives from both ma­jor par­ties had con­tracts with CNN in the first place. These are ex­am­ples of the cozy re­la­tion­ship be­tween the net­work and the peo­ple it cov­ers (the same can be said for Fox and its sta­ble of po­lit­i­cal in­sid­ers dou­bling as pun­dits) that un­der­cut jour­nal­is­tic cred­i­bil­ity, and make it dif­fi­cult for the pub­lic to find trust­wor­thy anal­y­sis on the talk­ing-head cable TV shows.

In­stead of of­fer­ing in­sight, they of­ten en­gage in out­ra­geously il­log­i­cal con­tor­tions to buff up which­ever can­di­date they sup­port, or try to dent whomever they oppose.

And why wouldn’t they? Who would ex­pect Mary Matalin, say, to ac­knowl­edge the flaws of a Repub­li­can can­di­date? Why would Paul Be­gala say any­thing to un­der­mine his friends in the Demo­cratic party?

A re­cent low point: Trump sur­ro­gate Jef­frey Lord’s bizarre as­ser­tion on CNN dur­ing the pri­maries that the 19th cen­tury Ku Klux Klan was “a lib­eral left­ist ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion” and formed “the mil­i­tary arm, the ter­ror­ist arm of the Demo­cratic Party,” which (and this part is true) sup­ported slav­ery in the lead up to the Civil War. Other par­ti­sans sim­i­larly defy credulity, par­tic­u­larly for­mer Don­ald Trump cam­paign man­ager Corey Le­wandowski, who col­lected sev­er­ance checks and ad­vised the Trump cam­paign, with whom he had signed nondis­clo­sure and non-dis­par­age­ment agree­ments, while un­der con­tract with CNN.

The per­sis­tent pres­ence of these spin doc­tors on news pro­grams not only con­fuses vot­ers, it can com­pro­mise jour­nal­is­tic ef­forts to bring clar­ity to what the can­di­dates are say­ing and do­ing. Given Trump’s in­abil­ity to tell the truth or stick to a lie, it doesn’t help when his sur­ro­gates, ap­pear­ing as paid com­men­ta­tors, take to the air to per­suade vot­ers that their can­di­date didn’t just say what ev­ery­one clearly heard him say.

The cable news net­works are en­ti­tled to hire whomever they want, of course. But they might want to do some soul-search­ing af­ter elec­tion day about the na­ture of po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis and the ben­e­fit of keep­ing some dis­tance be­tween the news and the po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns they are pu­ta­tively cov­er­ing.

This edi­to­rial ap­peared in the Los An­ge­les Times on Nov. 2.

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