The image in the tweet above comes from the inside back cover of Girls’ Guns & Rods magazine, a Florida-based publication that encourages women to get outside, shoot and fish (and bowfish). It’s an ad from the NRA showcasing CNN commentator S.E. Cupp. The pitch goes like this:
What’s a CNN commentator doing in a promotion for one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies? Just expressing herself. “As a commentator she is paid for her opinions, like any of our other commentators,” says CNN spokeswoman Jennifer Dargan in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. Cupp herself mounts a similar defense: “The NRA may be a powerful lobby, but it also represents millions of members, like me,” she writes in an e-mail. “My job as a commentator is to have an opinion. When it comes to the 2nd Amendment, my opinion is well established. In fact, this is as transparent as it gets — it’s literally an ad for my position.”
It is indeed transparent: Cupp is a well-known commentator and her position on the Second Amendment is clear. Furthermore, she receives the Erik Wemple Blog Gold Star for instant, complete and un-defensive responses to inquiries.
Her participation in an NRA advertisement, however, isn’t opinionating so much as advocacy. Agreeing on general terms with the NRA about gun rights, the media and many other topics is one thing. Another thing is advancing its membership agenda. By doing that, she aligns herself not only with the group’s gist but also with its lobbying tactics, its fundraising strategies, its approach to handling press inquiries, its Web site design, its color choices in its shooting range. Everything! She’s taking her affiliation with CNN and channeling it toward the proprietary agenda of a Beltway special interest.
There’s a fairness question here, too. If Cupp, who also writes for the New York Daily News and is a contributor for Field & Stream, allows use of her news personality to peddle NRA memberships, why doesn’t she do likewise for the Gun Owners of America (GOA) — and any other pro-gun organization that comes calling? Journalistic fairness requires nothing less. Larry Pratt, GOA executive director, says his group prefers to use “plain vanilla folks” in its promotions. But: “If we were going to do that, she would be a good one,” he says of Cupp. For her part, Cupp says that she has indeed worked with other groups, including the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
The CNN-Cupp defense isn’t novel. Back when critics were raising concerns about the conflicts of interest rife among hosts — chiefly Newt Gingrich and Stephanie Cutter — of the again-defunct CNN program “Crossfire,” the network declared that disclosures were not required because the allegiances of the hosts were clear through their political views. In the words of CNN, “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.”
That outrageous dodge kicked up minimal outrage.
In addition to compromising the straight-shooting news rep that CNN so craves — and that many critics so vehemently gainsay — the CNN-Cupp position debases the field of opinion journalism. This idea that somehow a journalist with an opinion can join forces with groups who broadly share that opinion undercuts journalism itself, which stipulates and presupposes a fierce independence from all staked players.
Cupp tells the Erik Wemple Blog that she received no payment for her GGR advertisement or for an April speech before an NRA crowd in which she said, in part, “As a new mom, my determination to protect my family is greater than ever. And that’s why I find it so offensive when other men — invariably, liberal Democrats — think they can tell me how best to defend myself against other men.” Along these lines, Cupp sends a little heat in the direction of the competition: “My support of the NRA is about as surprising or controversial as [MSNBC host] Ed Schultz’s support of the unions,” she writes in an e-mail. “Only unlike him, I wasn’t paid $250K for it.” (An MSNBC spokeswoman rips back: “Looks like a swing and a miss from SE – Schultz donated those funds to charity at the time, in keeping with company policy.”)