As a general rule, what’s bad for a campaign is good for cable news. Consider the case of Rick Tyler.
Last month, Tyler, then the communications director for GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), posted a video on Facebook and Twitter purporting to show Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) bashing the Bible. Unfortunately for Tyler, upon closer listen, it turned out Rubio had been singing the good book’s praises. Tyler lost his job, and cable news gained a gaffe to babble about for a day.
And for MSNBC, Rick Tyler’s firing also provided the perfect opportunity to trot out its newest paid political contributor . . . Rick Tyler.
“I know we’re ripping the Band-Aid off here a little bit,” Chuck Todd said to his new colleague, a former newsmaker in his first on-air appearance as news commentator, just days after his dismissal. “Where do you start with your regret?”
Tyler, leaning forward in his camera-friendly blue-and-orange tie, made some conciliatory noises about his “judgment error” and Cruz doing “what he had to do,” and how he tried to take down the post as soon as he learned it was a goof, but . . .
“It seems to me,” Todd said, in gentle absolution, “in some ways you were a victim of . . . this fast news cycle.”
The news cycle taketh away and the news cycle giveth. Tyler may have messed up on the job, but that’s hardly the kind of thing to get you blacklisted from the thriving political-commentary industry these days. There’s always a pulpit for out-of-work campaign staffers on television, where those who can’t do, preach.
They show up on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, with titles that offer little distinction to the average viewer: strategists, analysts, commentators, guests. They talk about polls and strategy, about lanes and ceilings. It doesn’t matter if they get things wrong — who in this election hasn’t?
“The thing about political news on cable,” says Jay Rosen, an academic and media critic, “is that so much of it is spitballing, and it’s actually something any reasonably informed citizen can do pretty well.”
Networks get credibility by seeking out these insiders, and they claim balance by hiring from both sides of the aisle. It’s been going on for a while now. Remember David Gergen, a three-time White House aide turned journalist turned pundit — “the perfect flower of the Insider species,” as New York Times journalist Michael Kelly called him in a 1993 profile?
“Yesterday’s reporter is today’s White House spokesman is tomorrow’s pundit,” Kelly wrote.
There’s plenty of incentive to make the transformation. Some get paid tens of thousands of dollars (or more) to hold forth on TV now and then, while others are just grateful for the chance to promote their brand. “It’s good to be seen,” says Hogan Gidley, a former campaign staffer for both former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and now a regular cable guest.
Patti Solis Doyle, who was fired as Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in 2008, accepted a CNN offer for the 2016 cycle because she wanted to help her old boss from outside. It’s a win-win-win as far as CNN, Solis Doyle and the Clinton team are concerned: CNN gets an insider who worked for Clinton for 17 years, Solis Doyle gets a platform without the grueling hours of a real campaign job, and Clinton gets a prominent supporter on the airwaves at no cost to the campaign.
“On the rare occasion where I think the Clinton campaign had a misstep, I’ll say so,” says Solis Doyle. “The campaign does send out their talking points, but I make the decision of whether or not I’ll use them.”
Every campaign has some version of Solis Doyle on the air, and some of them don’t always bother disclosing their ties to candidates. Then there are today’s versions of “perfect flowers.” There’s Al Gore’s old campaign manager Donna Brazile, now a “political strategist and contributor” to both CNN and ABC News who also serves as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. Or former Bill Clinton strategist Paul Begala, now both a contributor to CNN and an adviser to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting Democratic candidates. Insiders come with hidden value: Networks aren’t just paying for a talking head but for loyalty, for contacts, for help securing exclusive interviews.
No doubt this highly conspicuous revolving door between media and consulting work is yet another good explanation for why everyone hates Washington. Flip from CNN to MSNBC to Fox and you’re likely to hear everyone talking about the same thing, as if they all came from the same cocktail party (which they may have).
“I’ve got people who say, ‘How can you go on MSNBC?’ ” says Gidley, a conservative. “How could I not go on there? Those are my friends.”
But there do appear to be some uncrossable lines. Last week, Politico’s Mike Allen reported two items involving Stephanie Cutter, former aide to President Obama.
Item one: Cutter to become MSNBC analyst.
Item two: Cutter to help oversee grass-roots effort in support of Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court.
Cable news is filled with partisans, but the idea of paying Cutter to come on television and discuss an issue while also working on it behind the scenes was a conflict of interest too great even for the Insiders. MSNBC killed the contract.
These things are bound to happen. There are just so many hours to fill and so few people with actual experience to speak of.
“The thing that really bothers me,” said Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s former strategist and a regular presence on cable, “are the tons of people on TV who talk about campaigns that have never been in campaigns at all. There are all these professional conservatives who like to beat up on people who have never spent 19 hours in a campaign headquarters in their lives.”
It’s better, in other words, to feature people who have successes and failures under their belts — say, even Mike Murphy, architect of the expensively disastrous Jeb Bush campaign, who now occasionally pops onto the screen to talk about the state of the race — than people who haven’t even had the opportunity to mess up.
In Tyler’s case, his mistake on the Cruz campaign even seems to have helped him land his gig on MSNBC.
He already had a reputation as a hard-working and likable professional, comfortable in front of the cameras and on good terms with beat reporters. And his was a gaffe that was all too relatable in the click-now, regret-later era of social media. On Sunday, Feb. 21, he saw a video, filmed by a University of Pennsylvania student newspaper, showing Rubio walking through a hotel lobby where a Cruz staffer was reading the Bible. The subtitles over the muddled audio claimed Rubio gestured to the book and said, “Not a lot of answers in there.” Tyler shared the video.
It was soon revealed that Rubio actually said, “All the answers are in there.” Cruz, already facing criticism for running a dirty-tricks campaign, asked Tyler to step down that Monday.
After his farewell party, Tyler texted his friend Peter Zorich to ask for leads on a TV gig.
“Just about all of my clients ask me how they can get hired,” says Zorich, whose company, Best Guest Media, helps people get booked on television. “I tell them all the same thing: It’s extremely difficult, and it shouldn’t be the goal.”
But Tyler had something going for him: His name was all over the news.
“It helps if you have a little notoriety,” Zorich says.
Zorich contacted a friend at MSNBC, and within 36 hours Tyler was under contract. By Friday, he was on the air. His first interview, with Todd, started with a discussion of the video kerfuffle but quickly moved onto analyzing the horse race. Tyler knows this will probably be a big chunk of his job.
“It used to be, people weren’t interested in process or strategy,” says Tyler. “But people are interested in all that stuff now. To some extent, Donald Trump is a grotesque, extreme version of the obsession with process — it’s all he talks about. It’s all about polls, or how big his crowd is.”
This is not a compliment.
“He just nauseates me,” Tyler says, noting that he doesn’t think he could support Trump if he were the Republican nominee.
It’s the kind of statement that could make for some good programming on television, only it hasn’t come up yet. “I’m surprised, but no one’s asked me yet,” he says. “And I’m dreading the question.”
But not dreading it enough, of course, to stop going on TV.