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The galling cynicism of CBS News hiring Mick Mulvaney

‘Access journalism’ takes the media to dangerous places when one side of the aisle is turning against democracy

Mick Mulvaney, right, in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar during his time as acting White House chief of staff in March 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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When word came the other day that a former top Trump aide, Mick Mulvaney, was joining CBS News as a paid pundit, the move was met with a fair amount of disgust — both inside and outside the network.

Why hire this partisan, the White House acting chief of staff for a time, who had such an execrable record of enabling his boss’s corruption and reinforcing his lies? What journalistic purpose could this possibly serve?

It was hard to understand until my colleague Jeremy Barr got hold of a recording of a CBS staff meeting that answered the question.

“If you look at some of the people that we’ve been hiring on a contributor basis, being able to make sure that we are getting access to both sides of the aisle is a priority, because we know the Republicans are going to take over, most likely, in the midterms,” Neeraj Khemlani, the news division’s co-president, told the staff of the network’s morning show.

“A lot of the people that we’re bringing in are helping us in terms of access to that side of the equation.”

And there it was: access.

Turmoil at CBS News over Trump aide Mick Mulvaney’s punditry gig

That’s not necessarily a dirty word. Every beat reporter knows that access is crucial in journalism. You can’t cover your subject area if the inside people won’t talk to you — whether you’re a White House correspondent prying information out of sources within the administration or a local police reporter who needs comment from the top cop and a steady supply of story tips from the rank and file.

Access is the fertile soil in which scoops are grown and watered.

But the question arises here: access to what? To those who will spout the “big lie” about the 2020 election? To those who will excuse and arrange for corrupt behavior?

Let’s recall, for a moment, some of Mick Mulvaney’s greatest hits.

There was the time he defended President Donald Trump’s withholding nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, freely admitting that it had to do with his boss’s insistence that Ukraine investigate Hunter Biden to serve his own political ends. “Get over it,” Mulvaney told the press corps who questioned the “quid pro quo” nature of the demand. “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” (Mulvaney later tried to walk it back, denying that he had described a “quid pro quo.”)

In fact, Mulvaney was deeply involved behind the scenes in the infamous phone call on July 25, 2019, between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. You might recall that national security adviser John Bolton refused to get involved in “whatever drug deal [Ambassador to the European Union Gordon] Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up” on behalf of Trump.

That was the call in which Trump uttered the impeachment-worthy line, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

Later, in early 2020, Mulvaney slammed press coverage of the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic as little more than an effort to hurt Trump politically.

“The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president,” Mulvaney said at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “That’s what this is all about.” Since then, 979,000 Americans have died of the virus that Trump downplayed and denied for so long.

Then, just before the 2020 presidential election, Mulvaney showed the world what an astute pundit he could one day become when he predicted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that his former boss would act like a statesman if he lost the election to Joe Biden.

“If He Loses, Trump Will Concede Gracefully,” read the headline. Instead, we got a violent insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and an endless democracy-damaging effort, led by Trump, to deny the legitimate election results. And, of course, a second impeachment.

In other words, Mulvaney has been on the wrong side — the deeply, undemocratically wrong side — of America’s most important political issues in recent years.

The larger issue here, though, is the news media’s blind and relentless pandering to the outdated notion that both sides of the aisle are pretty much equal these days — that they’re similar, just with different governing philosophies.

That’s simply not the case.

“We have a two-party system and one of the two is anti-democratic,” as NYU professor and press critic Jay Rosen put it. This basic asymmetry, he noted, “fries the circuits” of the mainstream media, which largely refuses to recognize it or do anything about it in their coverage.

Media executives are in a defensive crouch, fearfully reacting to bad-faith criticism from the right that accuses them of leftist bias and of repeating Democrats’ talking points. Above all, they want to look fair, even if that performative fairness does American citizens real harm.

In this context, CBS’s decision to hire Mulvaney makes total sense. “Both sides of the aisle,” and all that.

No matter that Mulvaney has been up to his neck in the very issues that have American democracy teetering on the brink.

READ MORE from Margaret Sullivan:

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What you can do to help save Ukraine from a looming news apocalypse

Russia’s new control tactic is the one Hannah Arendt warned us about 50 years ago‘‘‘

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