Sarah Isgur has spent her young career in the public square. She did communications work for the Republican National Committee; she served as deputy campaign manager for Carly Fiorina’s unsuccessful presidential campaign; and she served as director of public affairs at the Justice Department for almost two years in the Trump administration.
Meaning, Isgur’s views on a range of issues are on the public record, just waiting for a controversy. And here it comes: CNN has hired her as an editor for its politics coverage, as reported Tuesday by Politico’s Eliana Johnson and Michael Calderone.
The pile-on is growing by the hour, with detractors putting CNN on notice that they won’t abide the network’s hiring of someone who worked under President Trump — he of the constant “fake news” denunciations — and who has no experience in journalism. First-term lawmaker and frequent media critic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) issued these thoughts:
Journalism experience is helpful when hiring journalists. But it’s not required and news outlets have had good experiences in the past in hiring folks who lack that cub-reporter job at the local daily — an old standby that’s becoming extinct in any case. For instance: CNN itself hired Laura Jarrett in 2016 to cover the Justice Department; she had no journalism experience but had worked as a litigator — a job that entails seeking out facts and putting them on paper in clear and compelling ways. Unconventional hires enable news organizations to avoid stacking their ranks with people who all share the same sensibilities and formulas. You can have only so many crusaders for nut graphs under one roof.
Another consideration is the preponderance of liberals in all mainstream news outlets. That’s a real thing, as this blog has noted in the past. Hiring a conservative at CNN, accordingly, adds to the viewpoint diversity.
Yet Isgur still gives us reason to wonder just what CNN executives are thinking. As The Post’s Josh Dawsey pointed out on Tuesday, Isgur was forced to grovel before Trump in order to nail down her job working for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “She paid her respects to the president in the Oval Office — a cordial visit during which she told the president she was on board with his agenda and would be honored to serve him, according to several people with knowledge of the meeting,” wrote Dawsey and other Post reporters last April.
Consider that this “agenda” is an anti-media agenda. Sessions himself disclosed that his department had super-charged its leak-investigation load, a move imbued with hostility to media organizations and the public’s right to know. The “agenda” so zealously supported by Isgur also happens to include a specific enmity toward CNN, including relentless claims of “fake news” from the president, as well as the revocation of the hard press pass of correspondent Jim Acosta.
Had Trump been combing through Isgur’s Twitter trail, he might have found items supporting her assertion of fealty. For instance, she once ripped CNN as being biased to the left:
And she thought she spotted classic CNN bias one October morning in 2013, when the network was on-scene at the Values Voter Summit, a big to-do whose primary sponsor is FRC Action, an arm of the Family Research Council (FRC). Isgur took issue with how CNN had described the confab:
Via the TV News Archive, here’s the chyron to which she was referring:
The formulation that Isgur attacked — “Anti-gay, anti-abortion group hosts Values Voter Summit” — is a perfect example of a straight-up recitation of facts that some folks perceive as an iteration of bias. Here’s the FRC position on abortion: It calls Roe v. Wade a “grave error” that it hopes will be “corrected.” And here’s the FRC argument on homosexuality: It is “harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large, and can never be affirmed.” So, “anti-gay and anti-abortion” is a somber and factual description.
Perhaps Isgur, in her stint at CNN, will be deployed to infuse more euphemism into the network’s chyrons.
There’s more out there, too, like the time she contended that climate-change worries were a bit exaggerated:
There’s also the time she defended Fiorina’s baseless claim in the 2016 presidential campaign that Fiorina had “seen the footage” of an abortion.
And there are gratuitous slams:
Whatever, say some critics: The backlash against Isgur’s hiring is entirely because she’s a Republican:
Not really. The more closely conservative America mixes with Trump’s campaign against truth, the harder it will be to shoehorn people such as Isgur into organizations responsible for telling it. Though she didn’t gaslight the country from the White House briefing room during the administration’s opening months — that would be Sean Spicer’s distinction — her work on behalf of a liar constituted an awkward ramp-up to an editing position at a cable-news network. The only hope is that CNN — home to nearly 4,000 “news professionals” — will encourage a change in how Isgur deals with facts, and not the other way around.
Preliminary signs, however, indicate that CNN is running from this move. Background information supplied by the network — not attached to the name or reputation of any CNN employee — emphasizes that she won’t be directing or overseeing political coverage. Instead, she will “coordinate coverage across TV and Digital," and will be part of a team of editors reporting up to CNN Political Director David Chalian.
Mind you: When news organizations announce a fabulous new hire, they typically cite all the things this new person will be doing, not their bureaucratic straitjackets.
From the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani and Sam Stein comes news of further CNN wobbliness. “The Democratic National Committee has sought and received assurances from CNN that the network’s new politics editor, Sarah Isgur, will not be involved in the debates that the channel hosts and moderates for the Democratic primary,” write Tani and Stein. That’s a stunning development that should rankle not only Isgur but also all the nearly 4,000 news professionals at CNN. Would the network agree to sideline other employees at the request of some political actor?
On one level, CNN’s cave makes sense. There is nothing more important for the network’s sense of mission and its business model than politically oriented special events. In 2016, it asserted a dominance in the debate and town-hall circuit, snaring hosting rights to multiple Democratic and Republican debates — a straddling feat that neither of its chief competitors, MSNBC and Fox News, could muster. "We are the cable network that doesn’t choose sides,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, told the Erik Wemple Blog in 2016. “We have the advantage of having, I believe, more access to both parties than any other channel.”
That middle-of-the-road sensibility is what drove CNN to hire Isgur in the first place, yet it’s also shrinking her horizons at CNN before she even steps in the door. Put another way, CNN is forever trying to nibble away at the audiences of both Fox News and MSNBC.
Finally, according to the Daily Beast, the DNC was unsettled by an allegation in an August 2017 lawsuit that Isgur had communicated with people who had promoted an alternative, baseless story regarding the 2016 slaying of DNC staffer Seth Rich. In an email to the Erik Wemple Blog, Isgur strongly denied having any such communications. “I have not spoken about the death of Seth Rich with or to anyone except in response to questions pertaining to this lawsuit...It is deeply upsetting to me that there are those trying to connect me to this. There is a legitimate discussion that can be had around my future employment, but this is not part it.”
Taking up Isgur on that “legitimate discussion,” we asked her about the contradictions in transitioning from an explicitly anti-media administration to its primary target, her history of sniping at the media and other stuff.
She replied that CNN had asked her to decline comment. What transparency from an outlet constantly badgering government officials for just that.