The Intercept’s Lee Fang had a lonely experience in reporting a story about how TV networks fail time and again to disclose the financial conflicts of interest of their guest pundits. “We reached out to NBC, CBS, CNN, and ABC News, but did not hear back,” noted Fang in his piece.
Yet reporters at all these networks will be happy to drone on about the importance of transparency in government.
With the question of hypocrisy thus dispensed, let’s have a look at what Fang discovered: Television networks routinely invite guests to comment on politics without telling viewers that, Hey, this person does business with the candidate she’s praising on our airwaves. Fang looks at problems across various networks: NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” for instance, gathered pro-Clinton punditry from former Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter but failed to note that her firm, Precision Strategies, was doing business with the Clinton campaign. She was introduced as a former Obama campaign aide.
A good chunk of Fang’s reporting focuses on CNN, a channel whose nonstop political coverage drives a bottomless demand for talking heads. Consider the case of Maria Cardona, who has appeared frequently on CNN to talk about the 2016 campaign. It’s a topic in which she is steeped: Her colleagues at consulting outfit Dewey Square Group fund-raise for the Clinton campaign, the firm has been paid by Clinton Super PACs for consulting services and Cardona herself has maxed out her contribution to the Clinton campaign, as Fang reports.
Fang plumbs the resulting conflict:
The Intercept reviewed transcripts for 50 television segments, from August 2015 through this month, in which Cardona has appeared on CNN to discuss Clinton. In five of those appearances, she was identified or she identified herself as a supporter of Clinton. In another five, she identified herself as someone who advised Clinton during the 2008 campaign. The other 40 appearances presented her as a neutral Democratic strategist or CNN contributor. And in none of her appearances was it disclosed that her firm, the Dewey Square Group, has been retained for consulting work by the Clinton Super PACs or that her colleagues at the firm are working on behalf of the Clinton campaign. Cardona did not respond to a request for comment.
Here’s an example CNN’s disclosure approach in practice. On Feb. 17, during his daytime program, CNN lead political anchor Wolf Blitzer turned, as he often does, to the 2016 race. Hillary Clinton, noted Blitzer, was engaged in a tight race against Bernie Sanders, as polling indicated a “dead heat” in Nevada (which Clinton eventually won). The esteemed anchor introduced a pair of commentators to hash things out: “Let’s bring in our CNN political commentators, Democratic strategist, Maria Cardona, and Republican strategist, Tara Setmayer.”
The “Democratic strategist” contributed this comment when asked what had happened to Clinton’s vanishing lead in Nevada. It must be quoted in full:
I think what happened is we have a real primary on our hands. I’ve been saying from the beginning is actually great for the Democratic Party. Look, her campaign absolutely needs to focus on the fact that she needs to continue underscoring her message of lifting barriers for everybody, of making sure that this economy works for all communities of color. The speech she gave in Harlem yesterday was fantastic.
And those, I think, are the themes that will resonate in communities like Nevada, which has a lot of Latino voters there. Latinos have traditionally been backing her, and I think will continue to back her. And is she needs to continue to focus on this message of economic prosperity for everybody. That’s where I think she’ll start to get the younger voters and also focusing on how to it actually get things done as opposed to just talking about what everybody likes and sounds good. But how are you going to deliver for everyday Americans. That’s where I think her strength is.
It’s right there that Blitzer might have said, Viewers should know that you and your colleagues, Maria, have various financial ties to the Clinton campaign and groups seeking to assist it. Instead, Blitzer passed the baton on to Setmayer, and the context-deprived discussion continued.
The minimalist disclosure is ho-hum outrageous — which is to say that it’s an outrage made routine by prevailing TV industry practices. And even though CNN and others wouldn’t comment to Fang, there’s some on-the-record material in the history books. Eons ago in cable-news time, CNN launched a rebooted version of the old warhorse fight show “Crossfire,” anchored by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Stephanie Cutter, Van Jones and S.E. Cupp. The program covered a range of topics, and in so doing got itself in trouble. The nouveau “Crossfire,” for instance, welcomed Sen. Rand Paul as a guest — a guy to whom Gingrich had steered money. CNN issued this blog a statement over the matter:
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.
Especially liberals or conservatives with whom they do business. Of course, it isn’t obvious. The very same networks that deploy commentators with stakes in their topics also bill themselves as independent voices. Without extensive and detailed disclosures, viewers may well assume that everything they hear is untainted by cash (unless, of course, they have the Erik Wemple Blog archive memorized).
The only thing that’s “obvious” is the inability of CNN and its competitors to distance themselves from Beltway green. The networks want to fill their airtime with players — people who have been on the inside of campaigns, who have racked up countless TV appearances, who continue to receive whispers from other players in Washington. Just so happens that these players make a living in ways that strip the independence and objectivity out of everything they say on air. No wonder news outlets are hesitant to make all necessary disclosures.
CNN and NBC News provided no answer to our question about whether they didn’t know about these ties or just felt that viewers didn’t need any further disclosure.