CNN Puts Profit And Conservative Appeasement Over Journalism By Hiring GOP Operative
CNN is facing fierce backlash for hiring GOP operative Sarah Isgur Flores as a political editor. She is expected to coordinate political coverage for the 2020 campaign at the network, as first reported by Politico on Tuesday.
Isgur has no journalism experience. She was previously spokesperson for the Department of Justice under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, after earlier stints working on campaigns for Carly Fiorina and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Social media exploded in response to news of CNN’s new hire, unearthing, among other skeletons in Isgur’s closet, questions about her participation in the debunked Seth Rich murder conspiracy, and reports of her pledge of loyalty to President Trump.
White House reporter for the Washington Post Josh Dawsey tweeted:
One anecdote about Sarah Isgur: Top Trump aides were skeptical of hiring her after the 2016 election when she criticized Trump. So Jeff Sessions had to bring her into the Oval for an unusual meeting, where she promised the president she would be loyal. https://t.co/rFBrlUAcDF
— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) February 20, 2019
CNN has been back-peddling since the announcement of the hire broke. A CNN spokesperson told Vox that they “just wanted to be super clear – Sarah is not leading, overseeing, or running political coverage.”
Yesterday, a senior Democratic National Committee aide told The Daily Beast that CNN assured the DNC that Isgur would not be involved in Democratic debates.
Amidst the din, one big question remains unanswered.
Why did CNN hire Sarah Isgur?
Margaret Sullivan, former public editor of The New York Times and now a media columnist for The Washington Post, wrote:
“But why CNN made this move to begin with is the deeper and more troubling question.”
News networks regularly hire political operatives, but — and this is an important distinction — political pundits are typically opinion commentators, not news editors (I wrote previously about the ostensible firewall between news and opinion at Fox News).
But unlike other politicos, Isgur was not hired by CNN to sit on the commentator side of the fence. Her role as a news editor is of grave concern to journalism experts.
Lynn K. Walsh, Assistant Director of TrustingNews.org (a project of Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the American Press Institute), current ethics chair and former president at the Society of Professional Journalists, emailed me:
“My biggest concerns are that it sounds like [Isgur] will be making and/or at least influencing news coverage, yet very clearly has had political opinions and agendas. If she were hired to share her opinion that is one thing, but having influence over news coverage, which should be separate from opinion/talk show, definitely has the appearance of a conflict of interest, which can make you question every political news decision CNN makes.”
Staffers at CNN have likewise expressed their consternation with the network’s decision to hire Isgur. As reported by the Columbia Journalism Review:
“‘It’s extremely demoralizing for everyone here,’ one anonymous staffer told The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani. A ‘baffled editor’ told Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, that ‘reporters are up in arms about this.’ One of those reporters added: ‘I’m really, really worried about this, and concerned about the ethical implications of taking direction on stories from someone I covered when she was an operative.’”
Other journalism watchdogs have raised questions about how Isgur’s hire will impact CNN’s standards and practices.
Max Burns, Communications Director at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, tweeted:
No one at @CNN is willing to answer questions as to whether new Political Editor Sarah Isgur Flores will have access to the names of anonymous/background sources.
It’s normally standard practice for at least one editor to know those identities.
— Max Burns (@themaxburns) February 20, 2019
Judd Legum, publisher of Popular Info tweeted questions to CNN:
Qs @CNN needs to answer about hiring GOP operative Sarah Isgur to edit its political coverage:
1. Did Isgur sign a NDA while working for Trump?
2. What was Isgur’s role in spreading the Seth Rich conspiracy?
3. Will Isgur have access to the identities of confidential sources?
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) February 20, 2019
Jay Rosen, longtime professor of journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, tweeted:
I have been following this closely. So far I have not seen CNN leadership, even anonymously, explain what a political operative with no experience in journalism brings to the role they envision for her. Why is that? https://t.co/Xcty0spC6b
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) February 20, 2019
Despite the glaring spotlight, reasons as to why CNN hired Isgur remain obscured. When in doubt, follow the money.
Ratings Over Journalism
Dan Gillmor, Professor of Practice at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University tweeted:
So this move by CNN strikes me as an in-your-face abandonment of journalistic pretence, done for ratings and money. Deeply disappointing, but that’s how it goes these days.
— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) February 20, 2019
Likewise, Sullivan unspooled the financial thread running through CNN’s decision:
“It strongly suggests that the network’s big thinkers — including head honcho Jeff Zucker — are aiming for a kind of false fairness: a defensive, both-sides-are-equal kind of political coverage that inevitably fails to serve the voting public.
“This approach is not guided by what’s good for citizens, but by a ratings-first effort to position the network in the middle of Fox News Channel on the right and MSNBC on the left.”
What forces are driving CNN’s ratings-first effort? CNN is owned by AT&T Inc., a publicly traded corporation (NYSE: T) — so profit motive and ensuring shareholder value may pose a conflict with CNN’s commitment to journalistic integrity.
The news outlet was acquired in the merger with Time Warner in June of last year when a U.S. district judge approved the mega-merger.
However, as reported by NBC News, “AT&T, is in a long-running battle with the Justice Department over its acquisition of Time Warner. The DOJ had once suggested that CNN or another major asset be sold in order for AT&T to win approval.
“The Justice Department is still fighting the AT&T-Time Warner merger in the courts.”
Worth noting, AT&T’s Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson promised Trump a $22 billion investment in the U.S. in exchange for tax reform, as CNBC reported in 2017.
Stephenson was also national president of the Boy Scouts of America when Trump made a controversial speech at the Scouts’ Jamboree in 2017. The Boy Scouts later issued an apology for Trump’s speech.
Currently, CNN is part of WarnerMedia, a division of AT&T. John Stankey is CEO of WarnerMedia and oversees the business segment that includes CNN. Stankey reports to Stephenson; they are the two largest individual shareholders of A&T stock.
At the time of the merger, Zucker signed a new contract, keeping him at CNN through the 2020 elections, as reported by Vanity Fair.
Zucker reports to Stankey. The WarnerMedia / AT&T honcho had promised a hands-off approach to leading CNN, as reported by The New York Times. In an interview last year, Stankey told The Times:
“Well, first of all the folks at CNN will continue to do what they do without my involvement or intervention.”
But in the same interview, Stankey shifted key a bit. When asked if he had met with Zucker, Stankey said:
“Yes, and I’m very excited that Jeff has agreed he’s going to spend time with me and teach me the things that I didn’t grow up with and get me deeper in some of the knowledge of how media and the news cycles work. And I’m really anxious to get involved with that. I think we’re going to have a great working relationship.”
Board members of AT&T have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders — not only to maximize shareholder value, but also to adhere to SEC rules of corporate governance, which include broad ethical matters.
Michael Gordon, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Business Administration and Faculty Director, Center for Social Impact, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, previously told me (about a different matter), “The SEC’s Code of Corporate Governance for publicly traded companies puts the onus on a company’s board to ‘identify the legitimate needs of their stakeholder’ — notice: not only shareholders — and to be ‘mindful that their decisions affect stockholders, stakeholders, and our entire society.’”
As Margaret Sullivan wrote — and worth repeating — CNN’s decision to hire Isgur “fails to serve the voting public,” and is “not guided by what’s good for citizens.”
If Stankey or Stephenson greenlighted CNN’s hire of Isgur, would AT&T be in violation of SEC rules of corporate governance? Even if they didn’t know about the hire, now that they do, are AT&T execs obliged to direct Zucker to modify Isgur’s role?
BlackRock, the second largest institutional investor in AT&T and one of the most influential in the world, owns nearly $13 billion worth of AT&T stock. BlackRock’s CEO is on the record, saying the firm will remove support for companies that fail to contribute to society. Sullivan and journalism experts have been unequivocal: Isgur’s hire portends anything but a positive contribution to society.
“CNN seems to be trying to find its way between being a provider of news and the apparently more lucrative business of infotainment or opinion channel. And there is nothing inherently wrong with being an infotainment or opinion provider,” emailed Philip M. Nichols, Professor of Social Responsibility in Business, and of Legal Studies & Business Ethics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He added, “If CNN is moving toward the lucrative business of entertaining us rather than informing us, they have a duty to be honest about that.”
When addressing the question of why CNN hired Isgur, how honest is the network in communicating the motivations of executives like Zucker, Stankey, and Stephenson?
Zucker and Donald Trump are not strangers. Trump tweeted in 2012:
Great move by CNN if they sign Jeff Zucker. He was responsible for me and The Apprentice on NBC—became #1 show!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2012
Margaret Sullivan wrote in 2016:
“Looking for someone specific to hold responsible for the improbable rise of Donald Trump?
“Although there are many options, you could do worse than to take a hard look at Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide.” As former head of NBC Entertainment, Zucker gave the reality show president his start on ‘The Apprentice.’”
Cheri Jacobus, a former GOP public relations consultant, claims that she was blackballed by CNN, while the network gave a plum job to Trump pal Corey Lewandowski.
As Erik Wemple wrote for The Washington Post in 2016:
“Nothing speaks so ill of the move, however, as the relative stations of Jacobus and Lewandowski. She lost her volunteer job for telling the truth on air about Donald Trump. He secured a coveted paying job for sliming people like Cheri Jacobus.”
Lewandowski told me point blank in June 2015 that Trump had Roger Ailes and Jeff Zucker “in his pocket” cc: @brianstelter @sarahkendzior @kathygriffin https://t.co/h8t6oa2HFl
— Cheri Jacobus (@CheriJacobus) February 20, 2019
Prior to her CNN hire, Isgur was in talks with MSNBC, where she was “pitching her intimate knowledge of the Mueller probe as a selling point,” a source told Vanity Fair. According to the publication, CNN has said that Isgur will have no role in any coverage related to Mueller or the Department of Justice.
It isn’t yet clear what impact Isgur will have on news reporting at CNN.
Media columnist Erik Wemple wrote for The Washington Post:
“Though she didn’t gaslight the country from the White House briefing room during the administration’s opening months — that would be Sean Spicer’s distinction — her work on behalf of a liar constituted an awkward ramp-up to an editing position at a cable-news network. The only hope is that CNN — home to nearly 4,000 ‘news professionals’ — will encourage a change in how Isgur deals with facts, and not the other way around.”
Lynn Walsh expressed similar concern about Isgur’s ripple effect on CNN’s news organization. She continued in her email, “She may turn out to be great in the position, but because of her background in politics, I think there is always the possibility that people will make assumptions about story selection, news coverage, and that could overshadow any important journalistic work the network does.”
No one from AT&T or WarnerMedia responded to inquiries. A spokesperson for BlackRock previously told me the firm doesn’t comment on specific companies. I received this auto-reply from a CNN spokesperson:
“I’ll be OOO Thursday and Friday of this week. My mood and attitude are kind of garbage right now so consider yourself lucky. Planning to be fresh and friendly with a brand new can-do outlook on life by Monday.”
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