Mediator: A Union of Politics and News Ends With Both Contaminated

2016-11-02 11:32:14

 

Mediator: A Union of Politics and News Ends With Both Contaminated

The decision by ABC News to hire George Stephanopoulos in 1996 tripped alarms throughout American journalism.

Mr. Stephanopoulos, a top aide to President Bill Clinton, was so fresh from the political battlefield that he still had blood on his shoes. Would he track it into newsrooms and broadcast studios, leaving a trail for others to follow?

“Government-to-press switcheroos do not bode well for news objectivity,” The Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg wrote at the time. In The New York Times Magazine, Max Frankel called Mr. Stephanopoulos’s move another step in “the progressive collapse of the walls that traditionally separated news from propaganda,” which had been erected “to guard against all kinds of partisan contamination.”

Network news executives brushed it off as sanctimony from graybeards who didn’t get it. Their hiring of political operatives — who were becoming telegenic stars in their own right — continued apace.

Well, here we are. This week brought the news that CNN had cut ties to Donna Brazile, the interim chairwoman of the Democratic Party and a longtime paid political analyst for the network. They parted ways after leaked emails indicated that she had shared with Hillary Clinton’s campaign some possible questions for CNN-sponsored candidate events during the primaries.

It took 20 years, but the warnings have come true — the contamination has spread and the patient is looking sickly.

The mess with Ms. Brazile draws to a close a campaign season that tore at the foundation of the wall Mr. Frankel wrote about. It started with news that Mr. Stephanopoulos had donated $75,000 to the Clintons’ family foundation; went on to include CNN’s hiring of the former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowksi as an analyst, even as he continued to be paid a “severance” from the Trump campaign; and saw Sean Hannity of Fox News (who famously intoned “I’m not a journalist”) emerge as an informal adviser to the Trump campaign.

But Ms. Brazile’s entanglement took it all to a newly scandalous level.

As Jeff Zucker, the CNN president, told his journalists in a conference call on Tuesday morning, the disclosure of Ms. Brazile’s assist to the Clinton campaign threatened to undercut all their hard work this year. Worse, for the industry at large, it played into Donald J. Trump’s accusations that the mainstream media was colluding with Mrs. Clinton to deliver her to the White House.

The whole thing stinks. But the moment will be wasted if it does not prompt the networks to reset the boundaries between their newsrooms and their paid political operatives, if not end these arrangements altogether.

Not all networks abide by the same arrangements with political analysts. For instance, on Tuesday, the NBC News and MSNBC managing editor for politics, Dafna Linzer, told me that they would not have abided, for instance, with an arrangement like that of Mr. Lewandowski, who continued to collect money from Mr. Trump’s campaign while working for CNN (severance or otherwise) and was also constricted by a nondisclosure agreement. “We don’t see why you would ever put yourself into that ethical conflict zone,” she said.

CNN declined to discuss its policies for hiring analysts.

The network has tried to distance itself from Ms. Brazile’s actions, saying it did not provide her any questions or material in advance. But the network has not helped with its handling the matter, showing a surprising lack of transparency for a news organization dedicated to conveying the truth.

Ms. Brazile became the Democratic Party’s interim chairwoman in July, after WikiLeaks published internal party emails showing that the chairwoman at the time, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, conspired to undermine Mrs. Clinton’s primary rival, Bernie Sanders. Ms. Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign, and Ms. Brazile and CNN mutually agreed to suspend her contract while she took over the party.

After other WikiLeaks emails showed that Ms. Brazile had sent a question from a planned forum to Mrs. Clinton’s aides, Ms. Brazile resigned from CNN altogether, nullifying her contract.

But CNN did not report the end of its relationship with Ms. Brazile — indisputably a big story — until Monday, more than two weeks later. And it did so only when yet another trove of emails showed Ms. Brazile had again shared a potential debate question with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

The Brazile affair has generated a host of questions: What else might she have shared with the Clinton campaign that could have come from the CNN newsroom? Was she privy to any sensitive stories CNN might have been pursuing about Mrs. Clinton and, if so, is CNN satisfied that she had not shared those with the campaign?

More immediately, what does the network know about how Ms. Brazile obtained the questions in the first place? (“From time to time I get the questions in advance,” she wrote the campaign in one email).

Ms. Brazile has denied she shared any inside information with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, or that CNN ever shared debate questions with her. Speaking with my colleague Michael M. Grynbaum on Monday, she refused to discuss what’s contained in emails that were disclosed through hacking. That may make sense politically, for her, but it leaves a journalistic mess for CNN, which has a pressing interest in being as clear as possible about what Ms. Brazile did and did not do.

But CNN officials declined my request to publicly discuss the particulars of Ms. Brazile’s apparent infractions, and whether there could have been others.

In a statement released on Monday, the network said it was “uncomfortable with what we have learned about her interactions with the Clinton campaign while she was a CNN contributor.” As The Huffington Post first reported on Tuesday, Mr. Zucker said on his staff conference call that Ms. Brazile’s actions were “disgusting.”

In a new email disclosed on Monday, Ms. Brazile told two senior Clinton aides that at the debate scheduled for Flint, Mich., “a woman with a rash” would ask Mrs. Clinton what she would do for families like hers that were suffering from lead poisoning because of contaminated water.

Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” reported on Monday that he had seen Ms. Brazile participate in a network-sponsored effort to hand out bottles of fresh water to Flint residents the day before the debate.

He speculated Ms. Brazile may have come across the questioner then, which would mean she didn’t learn about the question from within the CNN newsroom.

But that raises an important issue nonetheless: If Ms. Brazile came across a woman who shared a question she was going to ask at a CNN-sponsored debate, was Ms. Brazile — then the Democratic Party’s vice chair — obliged to share it with her political allies, or was she obliged to abide by the journalistic standards of the network that paid her and keep it to herself?

Even if CNN could stipulate those kinds of obligations in its contracts, there would be no way for it to know if the wolf it has invited into its henhouse was going to abide by them, barring the extraordinary circumstance of a computer hacking. It just goes to show that it’s best to keep the wolf out altogether.

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