With Lewandowski hire, what is CNN thinking? Ratings, of course
Of the many low points in the media’s handling of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, CNN’s hiring of former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a political commentator may be the lowest.
Lewandowski’s treatment of the media has been unprecedented for a presidential campaign manager. He oversaw a campaign that routinely blacklists reporters and barricades the press inside pens during Trump events. He even grabbed a reporter by the arm and violently pulled her away from Trump as she was asking a question.
Lewandowski oversaw a campaign rooted in racism, misogyny and other forms of hate. He and his candidate exacerbated an atmosphere already hostile to Latino, Muslim and Black communities.
What is CNN thinking?
This same network employs Jake Tapper, who in an interview with Trump earlier this month reminded us what it looks like when a real journalist persists in asking tough questions of a political candidate.
A journalist from this same network, reporter Noah Gray, was cussed out by Lewandowski for trying to document a protest at a rally. “Inside the pen, or I will pull your credentials,” Lewandowski shouted. “I’m telling you. I’m telling you. Media stays in the pen.”
It’s commonplace for 24-hour cable news networks to hire former campaign staffers to provide political analysis. MSNBC scooped up Rick Tyler days after he was fired as spokesman for Ted Cruz’ campaign. Like it or not, partisan strategists are a mainstay of cable news commentary, ostensibly offering insight through the lens of their professional expertise. In practice, this “insight” too often amounts to spin.
But the Trump campaign is no ordinary political campaign. It uses racism, Islamophobia, immigrant-bashing and misogyny as a political tactic. A recent New York Magazine report by Jonathan Chait reveals just how far outside the bounds of normalcy and professionalism the Trump campaign has been operating – with Lewandowski at center stage.
Furthermore, Lewandowski’s non-disclosure agreement with Trump reportedly includes a broadly worded non-disparagement clause that may legally restrain him from criticizing the campaign he’s supposed to “analyze” for CNN and its audience.
It’s no wonder that Lewandowski’s hiring is controversial among journalists – even within CNN’s own newsroom. That’s why Free Press is calling on CNN President Jeff Zucker to rescind the Lewandowski offer and stand up for journalists – including his own.
Spin to the extreme
Hiring paid political commentators is one of the more insidious practices that 24-hour cable news networks have made common. These arrangements are often ethically questionable, such as when the commentators ties to industry or other moneyed interests – like the Pentagon – are not disclosed.
Under the normal standards of journalism, these people would be sources — those journalists call for comment knowing, and making clear to the audience, the perspectives they hold and interests they serve. But in the world of cable news, interested parties are called analysts and paid to dominate the conversation.
Imagine how much insight CNN could offer if it chose commentators with independence and integrity, who could speak from the perspective of those hardest hit by the policies our leaders enact. Instead, the networks’ amplify the views of partisans and other political insiders. In doing so they’ve created a revolving door for political operatives, only increasing the polarized nature of our political discourse.
So who does this practice serve? Namely, the commentators who collect the checks and the networks, which fill endless hours with political gossip and bluster.
CNN may be chasing ratings with this hire. Trump boosted viewership during the primary, and now CNN and its competitor MSNBC (which also reportedly courted Lewandwoski) are hoping to draw even more viewers by whatever means.
Lewandowski is “the ultimate Trump insider” – which is exactly the problem. Imagine how many real reporters CNN could hire to investigate Trump, Clinton, and the hundreds of other stories that have gone uncovered while cable news focuses once again on the horse race.
CNN’s hiring of Lewandowski is the latest example of TV news ratings-grubbing that goes against the interests of that network’s own reporters.
We saw the same dynamic earlier this year when CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves couldn’t hide his happiness about the money Trump’s combustible campaign was making for his network – all while his network’s journalists were feeling the pain of Trump and Lewandowski’s antagonism toward the press.
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Moonves said. “The money’s rolling in.” He added, “Sorry, it’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald, go ahead. Keep going … For us, economically, Donald’s place in this election is a good thing.”
Less than two weeks later, CBS reporter Sopan Deb was thrown to the floor of an arena during a Trump rally and handcuffed without warning after filming an arrest. Video of the incident captures Deb clearly identifying himself as a member of the news media. Still police charged him with resisting arrest. Deb later Tweeted: “I’ve never seen anything like what I’m witnessing in my life.”
That is the campaign that Lewandowski ran, and the hostile environment he created for reporters. By hiring him, CNN is effectively condoning the Trump campaign’s demonization of the media – not to mention the physical abuse that protesters have suffered at his rallies.
Spin has consequences, and the policies Lewandowski is going to spin are extreme.
CNN President Jeff Zucker must rescind his offer to Lewandowski. Ratings don’t justify hiring someone who ran a campaign that consistently promotes racism and violates press freedom. Undermining civil rights and free-speech shouldn’t be a business plan. Not for U.S. businesses, and certainly not for U.S. media.
Fiona Morgan directs Free Press’ journalism programs. Before joining Free Press, she worked at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, where she researched the information needs of low-income communities. She authored a report for the New America Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative on the media ecology of North Carolina’s Research Triangle region. She is also a former associate editor at Salon and was a reporter for Indy Week, the alternative newsweekly in Durham, N.C., where her interest in media policy developed. She earned her master’s in public policy from Duke and a B.A. in English from the University of Washington. Follow her on Twitter @fionamorgan.