On May 18, CNN.com published a pro-Hillary Clinton op-ed by Maria Cardona, a CNN political commentator. Titled “Why Sanders must take the high road,” the piece was published in the aftermath of an out-of-control Nevada Democratic state party convention.
A sharp indictment of the Sanders people shouldn’t have shocked anyone familiar with Cardona, who is a committed Clintonite. CNN.com even dropped some italicized language at the top of the op-ed:
Editor’s Note: Maria Cardona, a political commentator for CNN, is a Hillary Clinton supporter and Democratic Party superdelegate. She is a principal at the Dewey Square Group, which does work for a super PAC supporting Clinton. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
And, perhaps the Democratic National Committee’s. What CNN.com did not include in its disclaimer is that Cardona pre-checked a draft of the op-ed with the DNC. That revelation comes from the mass of emails released by WikiLeaks and indexed here. On the morning of May 18, Cardona sent a draft of the op-ed to the DNC under this subject line: “Subject: URGENT – DRAFT CNN OPED ON NV.” Her request was in the top line: “I want to make sure it is not to heavy handed. Please let me know asap! Thanks!!”
Sure enough, DNC spokesman Luis Miranda replied, ” It’s fine with me, but the Clinton campaign would probably ask you not to place it.” To which Cardona shot back, ” Ok, will check with them.” In an email to the Erik Wemple Blog, Cardona said she merely apprised the Clinton campaign that she was placing the op-ed. “In terms of CNN, I am not in the habit of telling folks who place my OpEds who I speak to as I am writing them. CNN hired me precisely because of my positions- past and present, my relationships and connections and my ability to talk to the right people as needed. And my opinions.” Furthermore, Cardona reports that she wanted to be “fair and balanced ” in her portrayal of events in Nevada, events about which the DNC was well-informed.
A CNN spokesman issued this comment about the situation: “Political commentators are selected to express opinion. Many have relationships with a variety of organizations, campaigns and movements — on both the right and left. CNN discloses those affiliations to our audience.”
That’s true, as far as it goes. CNN, after all, employs Corey Lewandowski, who is perhaps the most conflicted and compromised TV pundit ever. He was hired as a CNN political commentator following his dismissal from the Trump campaign; he has continued commentating on CNN’s airwaves even though: He served as head of the New Hampshire Trump delegation at the Republican National Convention; he continued collecting severance payments from the campaign; and he appears to be bound by some kind of non-disclosure/non-disparagement clause, de rigueur for people who’ve worked for Trump.
And CNN is practiced in deflecting yucky situations with its contributors. A few years back, the network caught flak for the conflicts of interest affecting the hosts of the relaunched program “Crossfire.” The network fashioned this astounding counter: “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.”
The garbage is piling up so high that the Erik Wemple Blog is going to have to take two trips to the dump. Yes, we know that Cardona is a Clintonite; her curriculum vitae speaks to her affiliations. She’s a committed Democrat who worked as a senior adviser and spokesperson for Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 primary campaign, and she assisted the Obama presidential campaigns in both 2008 and 2012. So stipulated.
Even so, there’s a brand promise inherent in CNN, as in any other legitimate news organization. When it presents an op-ed to the public, there’s a built-in presumption that this piece of journalism comes off the keyboard of the writer and is amended by the professional editors of CNN. In this case, it appears to have been edited by partisan activists as well. That means that the product is not, in fact, an op-ed, as it’s categorized. It’s an op-propaganda-ed. In the past, this blog has come out in support of sharing pre-publication text with subjects of stories, for the strict purpose of fact-checking. Even though the exchanges in the chain show Cardona, indeed, clarifying some points with the DNC, consider that she was pre-clearing an essay with partisan officials who appeared to tilt toward Clinton.
Think about this proposition: If CNN’s editorial gatekeepers had been forced to tell the truth and add another line of italicized disclosure — “This piece has been edited by partisan officials with the DNC” — would they have published it?
The thoughts and opinions expressed in a story written by Maria Cardona will inevitably match up with the general interests of Hillary Clinton. That’s quite clear. But even a political commentator with disclosed loyalties can still exercise a measure of independence — perhaps dissenting from the campaign’s tactics, or differing with it on this issue or that issue. By sending the op-ed through the partisan wringer, however, any such hope of propagating actual journalism disappears.