For his noontime program on politics, CNN’s John King today welcomed Margaret Talev of Bloomberg, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, Nia-Malika Henderson of CNN and Manu Raju of CNN. The show’s format didn’t allow room for CNN political analyst Gloria Borger, CNN host Jake Tapper, CNN host Wolf Blitzer, CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, CNN correspondent Dana Bash, CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, CNN executive editor for politics Mark Preston, CNN national political reporter Maeve Reston, CNN national politics reporter MJ Lee, CNN correspondent Jeff Zeleny, nor for CNN contributors/political commentators/analysts such as Kirsten Powers, Jeffrey Lord, Jason Miller, Paul Begala, David Gergen, Van Jones and many, many others.
The point? There are plenty of people who can hop on air at CNN and analyze politics.
So why did CNN on Monday announce the hiring of The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza? CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker — using utter CEO-speak — told colleagues Monday in a call that the motivation involved “adding more destination bylines to our digital properties,” according to a CNN source.
To cover the 2016 campaign on its digital properties, CNN hired upward of 50 new editorial staffers, an expansion that has continued into the Trump transition. “CNN has built this massive digital enterprise,” said Cillizza in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. In his current job at The Post, Cillizza has written and led The Fix, a team of reporters who do quick-twitch stories on political stuff. Switching platforms, Cillizza has also done a lot of TV as a contributor at MSNBC.
The move to CNN, says Cillizza, enables him to fuse these two worlds under a single roof. “I think they recognized that no company and no individual is one thing anymore,” says Cillizza, noting that the idea that “we do TV but we don’t do digital” is an archaism. “It’s all moving into one big thing and I think they want people who they think can do that.” Cillizza will be working under a four-year contract with CNN. “I like doing two main things — talking and writing — and I get to do both of them,” says Cillizza.
Cillizza says that Zucker has been a “reader of my stuff” and has a relationship with Jeffrey Jacobs, Cillizza’s agent. That’s how the discussions got started. Though Cillizza received no guarantees about air time and other details, “they’ve got 24 hours to fill 7 days a week and I feel good based on the conversations. I think they value what I bring. I’ve had job offers at other places over the years that I haven’t taken,” says Cillizza.
As Cillizza departs, he’ll be taking with him a chip of Washington Post history. His 2005 start dates back to the times when the Washington Post had a bifurcated approach to modern news production, with a website managed from Virginia under the banner of Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive (WPNI) and the legacy newspaper in its old spot at 15th and L streets NW in the District. “The Fix,” which Cillizza launched not long after coming aboard, started out handling breaking-news items, which didn’t have a “daily vehicle” at washingtonpost.com at the time, says Cillizza. As time wore on, Cillizza decided he “didn’t want to play in the breaking news game” anymore. “And Bob Costa can break more news than I can do at this point,” he says. So the blog moved toward political analysis.
The political analysis that Cillizza produced at The Post could often be found lurking around the site’s most-read rankings. Part of the formula relied on immediacy: “write — now,” has been his default setting, as stated in a farewell memo from management at The Post. Another part was an obsession with how this political move or that political move would play with key electoral constituencies — a focus on optics. For which Cillizza isn’t apologizing. “The thing that frustrates me is so many times I hear, ‘Thank God for Dave Fahrenthold. He makes up for Chris Cillizza.’ And Fahrenthold and I are friends because we both understand he doesn’t do what I do, he doesn’t want to, and I don’t want to do what he does. He’s a great reporter. I’m thrilled we have him. But … this is a big organization … Dave doing his job is in no way related to me being able to do [mine]. They’re not the same. If we only did Dave or we only did me, or only Costa or only Dan Balz — yeah, that would be not as good an offering, but luckily we do all that stuff and more,” says Cillizza.
On the optics: “That’s the part of politics that’s always interested me. … And yeah, I’m unapologetic about it because I think it’s important to be transparent about what you’re interested in,” he says.
Scan Twitter long enough, and you’re bound to find people accusing Cillizza of both-siderism, an affliction that saddles believers with a lust for faulting Democrats and Republicans with equal measures of culpability for modern ills. Such a critique recently issued from the account of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen:
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) March 13, 2017
At issue was a Cillizza post in which he argued that “We are all conspiracy theorists now.” The post opened with this juxtaposition:
Talk to a supporter of President Trump and, at some point in the conversation, you are likely to hear some version of this riff: “The mainstream media is fake news. They ignore all the good things Trump is doing because they hate him and wanted Hillary to win. That’s why they spend so much time on this ridiculous Russia story and not enough time investigating whether Trump Tower was actually wiretapped!”
Talk to an opponent of President Trump and, at some point in the conversation, you are likely to hear some version of this riff: “Russia has something on Trump. Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Paul Manafort and the president’s own unwillingness to bad-mouth Vladimir Putin and Russia all make clear that he is being secretly controlled by a foreign power. He needs to be impeached!”
That side-by-side display doesn’t persuade the Erik Wemple Blog. In his defense, Cillizza notes that just as President Trump has provided no evidence that former president Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, Democrats have provided no evidence that Trump is a paid “bought and paid for by Vladimir Putin,” says Cillizza. “That’s a pretty big allegation. Now, what’s the evidence provided? There’s more than Trump has provided for the wiretapping claim, but what’s the evidence provided? That Michael Flynn met with Sergey Kislyak?” We pointed out that one thing — the wiretapping claim — is a discrete and specific charge made by the president of the United States, whereas the bought-and-paid-for thing is more a matter of political rhetoric made by non-presidents of the United States, and therefore not a suitable co-inhabitant of this equivalency basket. Cillizza counters that, well, there is no Democratic president of the United States right now and points to then-Sen. Harry Reid’s long-ago statement about Mitt Romney’s taxes as an example of how “we have seen from the Democratic leadership in the past a willingness to bend the truth.” Like Bill O’Reilly, the Erik Wemple Blog enjoys giving interviewees the last word.
As far as the critics go, Cillizza says he’s tried to interact with them, though he made exceptions for people who got personal with him or folks who seemed inflexible. Perhaps like Rosen, whom Cillizza blocked on Twitter. “For someone like him, I just feel like he had a narrative and everything played into that.” That said, Cillizza is resolving to review his Rosen policy. “I should undo that,” he says.
The analyst’s bounce to CNN will end one of cable TV’s more steady appointments: Cillizza chatting about politics on MSNBC with veteran journalist Andrea Mitchell. That’s been a daily staple of “Andrea Mitchell Reports” for years. “They’ve been great,” says Cillizza of MSNBC. MSNBC declined to comment on a question from the Erik Wemple Blog on why the network didn’t attempt to lock Cillizza down. Nor did Cillizza attempt to kindle a bidding war. “I don’t love doing it,” he says. “I personally feel like it winds up leaving a lot of people sore.”
The Fix will continue as The Post’s “flagship political blog,” said an internal newspaper memo.