Faced with the destruction of journalistic values by the corrupting effects of the profit motive, journalists can either stand up for the principles that brought many of them into the career in the first place—or else identify with the corruption, telling themselves that they’re siding with the smart money even as it destroys the institutions that form the basis for their profession.
Both reactions were on display in the wake of CNN‘s decision to hire recently fired Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. The conservative New York Post (6/24/16) quoted an anonymous “TV insider” saying that “CNN is facing a near internal revolt over the Corey hiring,” with another unnamed source saying, “Everyone at CNN — and even people who used to work there — are pissed about Trump’s former campaign manager being hired on salary.”
“Female reporters and producers especially…are organizing and considering publicly demanding” that Lewandowski be dropped, while “Latinos and others in the newsroom…may do a public letter” protesting the hire, sources told the New York Post‘s Emily Smith and Ian Mohr.
Not so fast, said Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi (6/27/16). “I get the argument that he was a bully,” he says a “prominent staffer” at CNN told him. “But I also get why we hired him. There aren’t many people who know more than him about how [Trump’s] campaign thinks and works. That could be very valuable to us over the next few months.”
(The staffer, “like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to alienate their employer.” The Washington Post‘s Eric Wemple pointed out the irony of protecting the identity of workers sticking up for company policy: “These sources requested anonymity to make glowing comments about their employer.”)
Farhi also cited CNN‘s in-house media reporter, Brian Stelter, who said on CNN‘s media show Reliable Sources (6/26/16): “There are some people that are uncomfortable with the hiring, and there might be some awkward moments in the makeup room. But everyone also said they understood the hiring, understood the logic of it.”
Farhi gives an account of “the knocks on Lewandowski,” which makes it clear that the objections go far beyond his being “a bully”:
He enforced Trump’s ever-growing blacklist on media organizations whose coverage has displeased the presumptive Republican nominee (including the Washington Post); he confined reporters to a media “pen” during Trump’s campaign events (and once pushed and threatened to blackball a CNN reporter who defied the edict); he physically restrained a reporter, Michelle Fields, who was asking Trump questions after an event in March (he was criminally charged in that incident, although the charges were later dropped); and he reportedly made inappropriate comments to female reporters on the Trump beat.
But Farhi also explained “the logic” of the hiring, spelling out what makes adding Lewandowski to the staff “very valuable”:
Given that the cable networks analyze and discuss the news far more than they actually report it, Lewandowski will be pressed into service over many hours, a senior correspondent said.
The network already has two Trump partisans in its pundit lineup: former Reagan political operative Jeffrey Lord and conservative columnist Kayleigh McEnany. But it needed another to meet the constant demand for Trump surrogates, he added. “There are many baby birds that need feeding”—that is, many programs that want a guest or a panelist to spout Trump’s views, he said.
Note that Trump’s views, which Lewandowski has been hired to spout, include a startling range of smears against Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, women and others. Note, too, that the phrase “spout Trump’s views” is particularly appropriate because, as Farhi points out, CNN is unlikely to get much in the way of actual information about the Trump campaign out of Lewandowski, who
has acknowledged that he signed a nondisclosure agreement with Trump that prevents him from disparaging the candidate or revealing proprietary information about the campaign. That agreement presumably puts some limits on what he might actually reveal to CNN’s viewers about the campaign’s inner workings over the next four months.
But Lewandowski’s value goes beyond having another in-house spouter:
A further potential benefit to having Lewandowski on the payroll may be in improving CNN’s access to Trump, said a CNN reporter. Although Trump hasn’t been shy about doing interviews on CNN—and CNN hasn’t been stingy in covering his rallies and news conferences—having a former Trump lieutenant can’t hurt when it comes to seeking access to the candidate or resolving issues with his campaign, he said.
So hiring someone as a commentator for your news channel who is so opposed to journalism that he’s actually had charges filed against him for assaulting a reporter is a smart move because it will ensure you can continue to give his former boss a platform—a boss whose attitude toward the press can be summed up in his remark: “I would never kill them, but I do hate them. And some of them are such lying, disgusting people.”
The conflicting responses of journalists to the Lewandowski acquisition were on display in one edition of USA Today. On the op-ed page was former NPR ombud Alicia Shepard (6/27/16), who praised the hire as “a smart move for CNN, which is, after all, a business dependent on increasing viewership”:
While they might lose some viewers, they may also bring in some who loitered at Fox and now might tune in to CNN just to hear Lewandowski.
This isn’t rocket science. It’s political theater, and you have to have big names to fill the seats. Lewandowski will do just that.
Dismissing Lewandowski’s record of attacking journalists as “a long history of being controversial,” Shepard scoffs that “he wasn’t hired for his personality.” Asserting that journalists “seem offended at CNN hiring Lewandowski because they don’t like or respect him after working with him or reading about him,” Shepard bizarrely compares him to a hypothetical hire of Clinton aide Huma Abedin, “who also happens to be the wife of disgraced former New York congressman Anthony Weiner“—as if not wanting to work with someone who assaults your colleagues is the same thing as having a personal distaste for someone’s spouse.
Shepard also brushes aside the fact that Lewandowski “signed a non-disclosure agreement where he’s promised to not disparage the campaign,” equating that to Donna Brazile as a commentator: “She may have no non-disclosure agreement because as a Democratic strategist and an official with the Democratic National Committee, she doesn’t need one.” That’s a non sequitur, since the point of bringing up the non-disclosure agreement is that Lewandowski is not only a partisan, but is legally obligated to be an uninformative one.
Meanwhile, on page 2B of the Money section, USA Today media columnist Rem Rieder (6/27/16) cites the Lewandowski hire as something that “encapsulates the utter bankruptcy of a practice that is awful but nevertheless has become a widely accepted part of the scene.” While noting that “why CNN thinks it’s a good idea to have such designated defenders, for any candidate of any political stripe, is completely lost on me,” he explains why hiring this particular spinmeister is particularly outrageous:
At least some of the talking heads have deep political resumes and have witnessed many aspects of the campaign process. But that’s hardly the case with Lewandowski. His background is largely as a Trump guy. And not so much as a strategist — Trump is his own strategist — or deep thinker, but as a right-hand man, a body man and an enforcer. So there is little reason to suspect Lewandowski will add much insight and perspective to the political dialogue.
And Riemer doesn’t think the legal restriction on Lewandowski talking about the one major campaign that he’s been involved with is irrelevant:
Even if Lewandowski wanted to say something critical of his old boss — and there is zero indication he would — he would be legally prohibited from doing so. So CNN has essentially placed a Trump propaganda minister — at a hefty salary, according to published reports — on its payroll.
Then there’s the matter of Lewandowski’s deep-seated antagonism toward the enterprise of journalism that he’s been hired to be a part of:
He has blacklisted news outlets that filed stories the Trump campaign didn’t like, among them Politico, BuzzFeed and the Washington Post. He manhandled then-Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields and was criminally charged, although the charges were dropped. He has consigned reporters to a press “pen” during Trump rallies, and dealt vigorously with those who tried, as they should, to roam the premises and interview people — cover news. Last year, Lewandowski had a confrontation with one of his new colleagues, CNN reporter Noah Gray, who was trying to interview a group of protesters. Lewandowski told the journalist, who was simply trying to do his job, “Inside the pen, or I will pull your credentials,” the Washington Post reported.
Media outlets could stand up to the Trump campaign’s attempts to delegitimize and scapegoat journalists. Or they can do the “smart move” of rewarding people who thus abuse them with a lucrative spotlight. It’s hard to do both.