Cable news networks compete aggressively to hire the freshest and most popular politicians and political strategists to serve as paid commentators.
That’s especially so when network contributors step on the campaign trail. Some of the most in-demand contributors are often those who are still active in the political arena or harbor future campaign aspirations, creating potential conflicts of interest.
CNN, the Fox News Channel and MSNBC have not previously said publicly what constitutes acceptable political involvement for their paid commentators, which has made it difficult to know where the line is — and has played into accusations of political bias in the media from both the right and left. When asked by The Washington Post to detail their guidelines, the three networks said that contributors cannot run for office or be paid by a campaign while maintaining their positions, but they differed on other dynamics of political engagement.
CNN faced questions on Wednesday when Joe Biden’s presidential campaign announced that Ana Navarro, a paid political commentator for the network, would host a “Hispanic-focused virtual organizing event and roundtable conversation” to “discuss Joe Biden’s agenda for the Latino community and the important role Florida Hispanics will play in making Donald Trump a one-term president by organizing and mobilizing Hispanic communities throughout Florida.”
The website Mediaite, which chronicles the intersection of media and politics, wrote that “the event is an unusual one for a network contributor — particularly one marketed by the network as a member of a political party other than the one for which they are campaigning.” (Navarro is a longtime Republican who has emerged as a strident critic of President Trump’s administration.)
But Navarro’s participation in the Biden event did not violate CNN’s rules. The network said Friday they allow contributors to appear at political events — just as long as they are not paid by campaigns. (A Biden campaign spokesperson confirmed that Navarro was not paid for her participation.)
“CNN’s contributors bring their diverse political points of view to our audience across our platforms,” a network spokesperson told The Post. “Some chose to support candidates or policies on CNN, at political events and with their wallets. We are transparent about the causes and candidates our contributors support.”
Navarro said during the Thursday campaign event that she is supporting Biden because “he’s a good and decent man" who “can actually articulate complex thoughts.”
She is not the only CNN political commentator who has gotten off the 2020 sidelines. Lobbyist David Urban has been identified on CNN as a “Trump 2020 Campaign Adviser” in television appearances, while simultaneously serving as a paid contributor for the network. A Trump campaign spokesperson said this week that Urban is an unpaid “advisory board member.”
Steve Cortes, who is now a senior advisor to the Trump campaign, served as an unpaid member of the campaign’s Hispanic Advisory Council while previously appearing on CNN as a paid contributor. “I could assist the campaign, but not be paid,” he confirmed to The Post. (Last September, Trump said at a campaign rally that CNN “didn’t like [Cortes] because he was too positive on Trump.”)
CNN also allows contributors to make political donations and endorse candidates. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang both endorsed Biden on air several months ago.
In contrast, an MSNBC spokesperson said that the network’s contributors cannot endorse candidates — or get into a race.
Recently, civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley left her role as an MSNBC contributor to consider a run for mayor of New York City.
Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican political strategist who renounced his membership in the party in 2018, left his role as an MSNBC contributor in early 2019 to advise former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz on his potential presidential bid. However, in the fall, after Schultz decided against running, Schmidt got his old job back at the network.
(Sister network NBC News has a similar policy. “NBC News contributors are not permitted to endorse candidates, be employed by political campaigns or PACs, or themselves run for offices,” a network spokesperson said.)
The Fox News Channel had come the closest to issuing a public guidance on the political activities of “talent,” a group that generally encompasses a network’s paid, on-air employees. After hosts Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro appeared on stage and spoke at a rally for the Trump campaign in November 2018, the network said in a statement that “Fox News does not condone any talent participating in campaign rallies,” calling the affair “an unfortunate distraction” that was “addressed” with the hosts.
But, there are workarounds. The Trump-supporting duo Diamond and Silk appeared at campaign rallies for the president while being paid to host a weekly show for Fox Nation, a Fox News Media streaming service, because the network said they only “licensed” their work for the channel and “are not Fox News contributors or employees.”
While network executives have reportedly “intervened” to cancel planned fundraising appearances by Fox News talent, contributors have continued to engage in campaign activity — though they are prohibited by Fox from being paid.
Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who joined Fox News as a paid contributor in August 2019, appeared at a Trump campaign rally in Iowa in January. Then, the following month, she made a $2,800 donation to Rep. French Hill’s (R-Ark.) campaign. Two months later, Sanders penned an email from the Trump campaign asking for donations to meet an April fundraising goal. (Fox News declined comment on whether Sanders’ activities were in line with company policy.)
Political commentator Tomi Lahren, who is a Fox News contributor and hosts a show for the Fox Nation streaming service, told her Instagram followers in September 2019 that she was “headed over to the UCLA student union for [the] election kickoff” of her then-partner Brandon Fricke, who declared himself a candidate for a congressional seat in California that day.
Since moving to Nashville, Lahren has become a vocal advocate for the recall of Mayor John Cooper, repeatedly urging her followers on social media to participate in the political effort. In July, Lahren told her Instagram followers that she was heading over to Nissan Stadium to participate in a petition drive for the recall effort — which was ultimately unsuccessful.
A Fox News spokesperson said that Lahren attended Fricke’s campaign events in a personal capacity as his fiancée but did not provide a broader statement explaining the network’s policy on contributors engaging in political activities.