September 27, 2013

Carolyn Kaster / The Associated Press

News organizations promulgate standards to ensure that their employees and affiliates abide by certain rules and procedures as they go about their journalism. The logic behind such internal corporate regulations is compelling, considering that journalists and broadcasters commonly cross paths with corrupting temptation: People offer gifts, inducements, cash and other approaches to favor-currying that can damage the news product.

What makes standards worthwhile is their universality: They must apply to everyone, or they apply to no one.

Except when it comes to CNN’s “Crossfire.” In a statement issued to Media Matters for America, the news network has declared that hosts on the program needn’t worry so much about their conflicts of interest. Full disclosure, it suggests, is a quaint superfluity. The statement, from Rick Davis, CNN’s Executive Vice President of News Standards and Practices:

We are clarifying the policy and making it clear Newt Gingrich is not in violation. The policy: If a Crossfire co-host has made a financial contribution to a politician who appears on the program or is the focus of the program, disclosure is not required during the show since the co-host’s political support is obvious by his or her point of view expressed on the program.

So just assume we’re corrupt, beholden, slanted.

An ethical morass has swallowed “Crossfire” since it re-hit CNN’s air on Sept. 9. Just as co-host Stephanie Cutter was doing battle with her foes, Fox News and the New York Times reported that she was working on messaging with the Obama White House, minimizing chances that Cutter would utter independent viewpoints on a program that thrives on venting.

Then comes Gingrich, a guy who has built a mini-industry of groups to advance conservative causes. One of his hats is honorary co-chair of American Legacy PAC, which recently donated money to the campaigns of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Thus arose immediate conflict-of-interest problems: “Crossfire” had Paul as a guest in the midst of the Syria crisis, and no political conversation these days proceeds without mention of Cruz.

CNN standards boss Davis had previously told Media Matters that Gingrich would issue the appropriate disclaimers regarding politicians that he’s assisting: “Disclosure is important when it’s relevant,” said Davis.

Now: Not quite as important or relevant. What happened?

Well, CNN appears to be saying that it’s just following precedent. In a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog, CNN suggested that this “clarification” doesn’t actually change any CNN rules. Here goes:

Crossfire hosts have never been required to disclose their contributions regarding guests on the show because their political support and activism are there for all to see. It’s obvious they support liberals or conservatives.

Politico has published an e-mail from a former CNN insider that differs from this statement, alleging that talent was barred from making contributions.

The network’s bellyflop on “Crossfire” is a capitulation to modern Washington, a concession that it can’t put together a debate program with high-profile Beltway types who aren’t somehow conflicted on any big issue that comes before the public. The network faced a choice between:

1) Issuing nonstop disclosures that would convince viewers of the show’s ethical wobbliness and hand media critics a stream of drip-drip-drip disclosure stories; or

2) Issuing a one-time, absurd, anomalous and unethical “clarification” to internal ethics rules and sustaining one round of bad press.

Here’s that bad press: “Crossfire” hosts aren’t journalists; they’re not newspeople; they’re hacks!

CNN’s position appears to be that if Newt Gingrich declares that he’s “from the right,” well, that’s all the disclosure that’s necessary. Wrong: Everyone already knows that Gingrich is a conservative. That’s no disclosure at all. The fact that he might have a cash relationship with one of his guests? That‘s disclosure. Nothing corrupts like cash. Once you give someone money, you have a stake in that person. And CNN, in its heart, knows that.

Bagging the disclosures threatens both the integrity and the entertainment value of “Crossfire.” Here’s why: The disclosure amnesty that applies to Gingrich & Co. not only blesses existing conflicts but will also encourage the hosts to incur additional ones. There’s no deterrence, after all, without disclosure. The result will be more uniformity and less chance that the hosts will desert their compadres and orthodoxies. They’ll remain loyal to their side, a predictable and unwatchable charade. Washington reality TV, in other words.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.