A few months before the 2016 presidential election, Sarah Isgur tweeted some advice to Donald Trump: “The only 3 words that should be coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth this week are: ‘Clinton’ ‘foundation’ ‘emails.’ ”
But that kind of helpful counsel wasn’t enough.
In early 2017, Isgur was summoned to meet with President Trump in the Oval Office, where she needed to pledge her loyalty to be named the Justice Department’s spokeswoman by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Now CNN has hired Isgur — who has no journalism experience and once slammed her new employer as the “Clinton News Network” — as a political editor.
The network, under heavy fire for the move, was insisting by Tuesday night that she wouldn’t be directing political coverage, although that surely is what a political editor might be expected to do.
Isgur is helping to “coordinate coverage across TV and Digital,” a spokesman told Vox, and will be “making sure that stories are featured on the right shows and articles get posted online at the right time.”
That sounds a lot like damage control.
But why CNN made this move to begin with is the deeper and more troubling question.
It strongly suggests that the network’s big thinkers — including head honcho Jeff Zucker — are aiming for a kind of false fairness: a defensive, both-sides-are-equal kind of political coverage that inevitably fails to serve the voting public.
This approach is not guided by what’s good for citizens, but by a ratings-first effort to position the network in the middle of Fox News Channel on the right and MSNBC on the left.
That could be an interesting and even useful place to be if it were done right.
If CNN could be truly fair-minded — thoughtfully impartial — it could serve a purpose in the campaign ahead. It could be one of the places you’d turn if you wanted to get the straight story on complex or contentious issues, away from the hyperpartisan cacophony.
But this move signals that no such thing will happen — or is even sought.
If you’re trying to deepen understanding, bridge the divide or do excellent journalism, this is one of the last moves you’d make.
As Columbia University journalism professor Bill Grueskin told me Tuesday, Isgur’s lack of journalistic expertise caused him to wonder “if Jeff Zucker would ever have brain surgery performed by a dentist.”
“Have the media learned anything since 2016?” is a question I often hear from the hopeful and the righteous. I’ve asked it myself many times.
But to learn something, news organizations — with CNN toward the top of the list of offenders — would have to recognize that they need to learn something.
This is the same CNN, under the same leadership, that in 2016 hired the bullying and ultra-partisan Corey Lewandowski as a commentator after Trump fired him as campaign manager.
It’s the same CNN that this month inexplicably and foolishly gave Starbucks founder Howard Schultz a prime-time “town hall” event to promote his scattered notions of a run as an independent 2020 presidential candidate.
That Trump has spent the past two years mocking and endangering CNN’s journalistic staff makes Isgur’s hiring even more incomprehensible — and insulting.
Of course, as many have pointed out, there has long been a revolving door between politics and the news media. William Safire went from Richard Nixon aide to New York Times columnist. George Stephanopoulos, once a strategist and spokesman for Bill Clinton, is the host of “This Week,” ABC’s Sunday morning news show. And CBS last year named former Republican operative Caitlin Conant to the powerful role of political director.
That doesn’t make it right.
“Let’s build the industry (and world) that we want, not blindly accept current realities,” as Washington Post national reporter Wesley Lowery pointedly put it on Twitter. “I’d like a world where partisan hacks aren’t laundered into journalism via our newsrooms.”
At a time when so many talented and experienced journalists are out of work because of layoffs in a teetering industry, this makes even less sense. There are countless better choices out there.
Far from being reformed from a time when it aired Trump rallies live during the 2016 primary season and let the candidate call in by phone to comment on this and that, CNN seems to be doubling down on a ratings-first, fair-in-name-only approach to politics.
That’s a shame and — as an extraordinarily consequential election approaches — it’s dangerous.
To its credit, CNN has plenty of high-performing reporters and editors.
What it lacks is a public-spirited mission, articulated at the highest level and backed up with every hire and decision.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan