Even in the highly competitive, ratings-mad, hardball-playing world of cable television, there should be a bridge too far.
In hiring Donald Trump’s fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, CNN ran blithely across that bridge and plunged into a sea of muck.
Bringing Lewandowski onboard is an astonishing reward for behavior that should cause him to be shunned by respectable journalistic organizations.
His manhandling of Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields at a campaign rally was deplorable, but it’s only a symptom of a larger problem. (And, yes, I know the criminal charges against Lewandowski were dropped; that doesn’t mean the incident didn’t happen. It clearly did, as I confirmed with my Washington Post colleague Ben Terris, who witnessed it.)
In a deeply reported profile in March, Politico depicted Lewandowski as a bully who once called a female colleague a “c---” in front of co-workers at the Washington advocacy group where he once worked. (Lewandowski would not comment to Politico on the altercation with his female colleague.)
The profile reported that he was “rough with reporters and sexually suggestive with female journalists, while profanely berating conservative officials and co-workers he deemed to be challenging his authority.”
Fields told me Tuesday that the aftermath of her filing charges against Lewandowski resulted in death threats from Trump supporters, threats that were also delivered through her mother and brothers, who were told how many hours she had left to live if she didn’t drop the charges.
The 28-year-old, now a contributing reporter at Huffington Post after resigning from Breitbart, said she continues to be targeted by Trump’s army of supporters, and described what happened as “a nightmare that won’t end.”
“I was disappointed and shocked,” to hear of CNN’s move, she said. “A regular person couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s after what he did.”
She added: “Come on, this is CNN! They call themselves the most trusted name in news.”
CNN brass has not publicly explained their reason for the hire. On Tuesday I asked CNN President Jeff Zucker why he brought Lewandowski onboard, given the former Trump staffer’s record of hostility toward women and journalists. Through an assistant, the news executive declined to comment on the record.
When I asked Lewandowski on Tuesday for his comment, he punted: “You should talk to CNN about that. I’ll leave it in their capable hands.”
He has said on CNN that he has “a great relationship with the press.”
“Look, I love everybody. I love you, right. Are you kidding me?” Lewandowski said Monday in an appearance on CNN’s “New Day,” addressing his on-air interviewer, Alisyn Camerota. He has repeatedly denied the incidents or reports that depict him as abusive, and in a classic blame-the-victim move, portrayed his grabbing of Fields as an effort to protect the candidate from her. Before video evidence emerged to the contrary, Lewandowski tweeted at Fields that she was “totally delusional. I never touched you.” Her bruises said otherwise.
(Fields: “I know a lot of people have been through a lot worse than I have. But now I completely understand why victims don’t want to come forward.”)
As campaign manager, Lewandowski banned news organizations from rallies and maintained Trump’s media blacklist, which includes The Washington Post, as well as BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, Politico, the Des Moines Register and many others. His hostility included CNN at least once. Noah Gray, a CNN producer covering Trump, tweeted last November that as he filmed the crowd’s reaction to a protester at a rally, Lewandowski ordered him “inside the pen or I’ll pull your credentials.”
At an event in March, shortly after the incident with Michelle Fields, Trump brought Lewandowski up on the stage for lavish praise: “Corey, good job, Corey.” At the same event (a pseudo-news conference where no questions were taken), Trump referred to the assembled press as “disgusting reporters, horrible people,” as Lewandowski stood by smiling. Jim Newell of Slate appropriately termed the tableau “grotesque.”
Many media observers commenting on Lewandowski’s hiring have shrugged and yawned, saying it’s typical of the revolving door of cable TV hires, in which politicians turn into well-paid pundits overnight.
And those who have criticized the hire have focused on Lewandowski’s non-disclosure agreement, which apparently keeps him from uttering a negative word about his former boss on air. It became obvious Tuesday afternoon in his milquetoast commentary on Trump’s latest speech.
That doesn’t concern me as much as the symbolism — and reality — of a top news organization giving a cushy landing place to someone with Lewandowski’s hostile history with women and the press.
And then not explaining it to the viewing public.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.