The Washington Post

Pundits — or propaganda pass-throughs?

This election cycle has been taken over by peak punditry. Here's a collection of what they've said about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

In early June, Donald Trump had some instructions for a small group of people assembled for a conference call. Over objections from Republican leaders, Trump urged the group to keep up the attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the judge hearing two lawsuits alleging fraud at the defunct Trump University. The judge, Trump said, was biased because of his parents’ Mexican heritage.

Trump’s phone audience was composed of “surrogates,” supporters who act as his proxies in public appearances and in news media interviews, particularly on TV. Among the supporters was Jeffrey Lord, a former Republican aide who is not an official Trump surrogate but was hired last year by CNN as a pro-Trump commentator.

Sure enough, Lord carried Trump’s message straight to CNN’s audience a few hours after the call.

“The judge in this case belongs to the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association,” Lord told host Anderson Cooper. “I’ve been through their website. It’s all about discrimination against — I mean, it’s not about other lawyers. . . . His membership in a Latinos-only organization is discriminatory.”

No one would mistake Lord for an objective analyst; he’s defended Trump through some of the candidate’s diciest moments on the campaign trail. But his comments to Cooper on June 6 suggest the hidden hands behind a lot of what passes for commentary and analysis on cable TV panel programs. Oftentimes, the commentary comes directly from the candidates and campaigns themselves, passed through allied pundits at the network.

Savvy viewers might be able to tell when commentators are merely parroting partisan talking points spoon-fed to them by campaign operatives, or even by the candidates themselves, during conference calls or email blasts to surrogates (the tactic is routinely used by the White House before big speeches or legislative rollouts, too). But often there’s little or no disclosure about how much coaching came from the campaign before the televised discussion begins.

In Lord’s case, Cooper noted that Lord had participated in Trump’s conference call, but neither he nor Lord acknowledged that Lord said exactly what Trump had urged.

Lord maintains that he’s not part of the campaign’s apparatus.

“I pretty much fly on my own radar here,” said Lord, a contributing editor to the conservative American Spectator magazine. “I’ve looked at [the campaign’s talking points], but I can say what I want.”

The candidate’s briefings, he said, are simply part of being prepared: “It’s productive to know what the general direction of the campaign is. You can’t discuss what Trump said if you aren’t informed about what he said.”

On the other hand, Lord acknowledges that one of his comments — he can’t remember the issue — was a direct result of the Trump campaign’s request “to put this perspective out there.” But, he said, “I happened to agree with that perspective. I said it [on the air] because I believed it to be true.”

The cable networks (and increasingly the broadcast networks as well) have long employed paid analysts to offer insight and perspective on a presidential campaign. They have traditionally drawn from the ranks of former politicians, campaign operatives and seasoned political journalists. Although these analysts often have loyalties and biases, they usually weren’t employed to tout a specific candidate.

Lord is part of a new breed that has emerged on CNN during this campaign: the in-house advocate. He is one of four commentators employed by CNN to speak for, or in defense of, Trump.

Notably, the network in June hired Corey Lewandowski, who had recently been fired as Trump’s campaign manager, drawing criticism from journalists that CNN was further blurring the line between political spin and journalism. Among the knocks on Lewandowski: He was still drawing severance checks from Trump as of last month and he signed a non-disparagement agreement with the campaign when he joined it last year.

CNN, however, also employs a number of identifiable advocates for Democrat Hillary Clinton, including Paul Begala, who worked for her husband’s presidential campaign in 1992 and has been involved in a pro-Clinton super PAC, and former Obama advisers David Axelrod and Dan Pfeiffer. Donna Brazile has also served as a CNN commentator while vice chair of the Democratic National Committee (Brazile and CNN temporarily suspended her employment after she was named interim DNC chair last month).

But veteran pundits say that not all TV commentators are created equal and that there are nuances in pundit partisanship.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, for years a paid pundit for MSNBC, said as a journalist, he would “never” accept talking points or “coordinate” his opinions with any vested interest. “It’s my job as an analyst to come up with my own talking points on the air or in the paper,” he said.

Yet Robinson adds that it makes sense for those who come from a political background to do so. “I wouldn’t want them to be cut off from the party and have no sense of what people [inside a campaign] are thinking.”

Weekly Standard editor and longtime TV pundit Bill Kristol draws a distinction between his brand of commentary — ideologically conservative and anti-Trump — and the kind of “surrogacy” that makes some talking heads indistinguishable from the candidates they tout. “Sean Hannity is more a [Trump] surrogate than a commentator,” Kristol said, referencing the Fox News host. “E.J. Dionne [of The Post, NPR and PBS] is a commentator who prefers Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.”

The latter, he suggests, is a more honest and independent position. “You can be a fan of a team and still root for the team, but you can criticize them, too,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with expressing a preference, but you should still call them the way you see it.”

No matter what the credential or relationship to a campaign, viewers are the ultimate judge of credibility, said Kevin Madden, a CNN analyst and former spokesman for George W. Bush’s and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.

“If I’m a Trump advocate and I say on the air that he’s going to do well with Hispanic voters, only the most ardent Trump supporter will agree,” he said. “If I’m for Clinton and I say the emails don’t matter, only her most ardent supporters will buy it. You have to make a credible argument, not just the message of the day that the campaign is trying to put out there.”

Of course, he adds, it always helps if you’re perceived as independent from all the candidates. “This cycle,” he said, “I’m in the enviable position of not supporting either one.”

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