Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

News networks are still booking Trump-backing guests without addressing their NDAs

September 25, 2018 at 8:09 AM

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News networks rarely disclose that many of the former Trump associates brought on to discuss the president are unable to disparage him. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

In the four weeks since former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman revealed (and President Trump acknowledged) the existence of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) signed by White House staffers, news networks have continued to book guests and paid contributors who have admitted to signing such agreements.

It is unclear whether the NDAs, which aim to prevent aides and associates from demeaning, disparaging and/or releasing derogatory information about Trump, Vice President Pence and their families, are legally enforceable. But they present an ethical dilemma for networks that regularly book guests and paid contributors to discuss Trump when said guests and contributors are potentially barred from speaking ill of the president — and by extension, logic suggests, being completely honest.

In August, news networks booked at least 11 Trump associates no fewer than 89 times who admitted to signing NDAs while in the White House or on the 2016 Trump campaign, according to closed-captioning records. Four of those guests were paid network contributors, and more than two-thirds of the appearances happened after White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told ABC News that the Trump administration “absolutely” makes staff members sign confidentiality agreements.

Despite this, few anchors even acknowledge to viewers the existence of guest and contributor NDAs. It is also unclear whether any of the five major news networks have policies governing guests and contributors with nondisclosure agreements on the topics they are brought on to discuss.

ABC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News and Fox News did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Fix. In interviews with The Washington Post's Paul Farhi, MSNBC said paid contributors are required to disclose potential conflicts with managers and CNN said it discloses to viewers when paid contributors have NDAs. However, the Fix found at least three instances within the last month in which CNN failed to disclose paid contributor Jason Miller's NDA from the 2016 Trump campaign.

Defending the hiring of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in 2016, CNN President Jeff Zucker told Variety that Lewandowski was not offering talking points, even as he continued to receive paychecks from the Trump campaign.

“I think it’s really important to have voices on CNN who are supportive of the Republican nominee. ... Our competitors tried to hire him too,” Zucker told Variety at the time.

But not all Trump aides are worth hiring, apparently; each of the five major networks reportedly passed on hiring former White House press secretary Sean Spicer last year.

Steven Roberts, a professor of media ethics at George Washington University, called the failure to disclose NDAs on air “journalistic malpractice.”

“You’re deceiving your audience if you don’t disclose that,” Roberts told the Daily Beast this month. “It’s a significant ethical breach because media ethics start with the principles of transparency: never confuse or deceive your audience.”

Speaking to The Washington Post in 2016, then-candidate Trump said he supported having federal employees sign nondisclosure agreements.

“I think they should,” Trump said. “When people are chosen by a man to go into government at high levels and then they leave government and they write a book about a man and say a lot of things that were really guarded and personal, I don’t like that.”

Below is a running list of Trump associates who have appeared on news networks since 2017 and whether they have admitted to signing NDAs:

Admitted to signing NDAs:

Denied signing NDAs:

Unknown whether they signed NDAs:

This post has been updated

JM Rieger is the video editor for The Fix, covering national politics. He joined The Washington Post in 2018. Previously, Rieger worked as a video producer covering national politics for HuffPost. He began his career as a video editor covering Congress for Roll Call.

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