Spinners Spin Selves

Campaign Desk has previously lamented cable shows whose ideas of “news” is to slap two campaign officials on air to shout talking points at one another with a moderator trying (or frequently not bothering to try) to penetrate the blizzard of spin. Often, we’ve thought, the cable channels might just as well dispense with the journalistic camouflage and put on a show called something like, oh, say, Racicot & Devine. (As in Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign, and Tad Devine, a senior Kerry campaign advisor). You know, make it official.

Now, CNN has done just that — made it official. Paul Begala and James Carville, “from the left” co-hosts of CNN’s “Crossfire,” late last week joined the Kerry campaign as advisors — and will be continuing their work on CNN.

There are plenty of pundits practicing today who once upon a time worked for a political campaign or a presidential administration — but concurrently working for a news organization and a political campaign seems an obvious conflict of interest to us.

But not to CNN, whose spokesman, Matt Furman, offered Campaign Desk this morning “some facts which actually might explain what’s going on.” There is no conflict, Furman explained, because Begala’s and Carville’s advisory roles with the Kerry campaign are “informal.” Furman told Campaign Desk that The New York Times failed to explain the “Crossfire” co-hosts’ roles “in as complete a form as possible,” before offering Campaign Desk, apparently, the “complete” explanation: Begala and Carville “have an informal role advising some members of the Kerry campaign”; they are “unpaid,” they “don’t have an office or a desk at campaign headquarters,” and they don’t “regularly meet with the campaign.”

What about CNN’s viewers? What are they to make of the fact that the network which bills itself as “American’s Campaign Headquarters” now employs two Kerry campaign advisors as hosts of a daily show? Furman repeated himself: “[Begala’s and Carville’s] informal role advising some members of the Kerry campaign is not inconsistent with their role on CNN. Our audience knows exactly what position they’re getting watching them, [that] they want nothing more than to see a Democrat elected president.” Moreover, Furman is confident Begala and Carville can do both jobs well — cohosting “Crossfire” and advising the Kerry camp — because, he said, “they’re talented men.”

So, will viewers be informed of the “Crossfire” co-hosts’ dual roles? “We already did that on air at least three times yesterday,” Furman said, noting that CNN’s Tucker Carlson, Anderson Cooper, and Larry King mentioned the issue on air on Monday.

We took a look at how these three CNN personalities addressed the issue. Tucker Carlson, not surprisingly, used the news to rib his co-host, referencing the Times piece, speculating on what Carville’s hiring might say about the state of the Kerry campaign. The notion of a conflict of interest apparently never crossed Carlson’s mind.

Anderson Cooper noted yesterday that “a group of familiar faces” recently joined the Kerry campaign, including Begala and Carville. He then exchanged some harmless back-and-forth with Carville, noting that Kerry is making some strategic changes and that Carville is glad to help.

And on “Larry King Live,” Larry King asked Paul Begala mid-program yesterday, “Are you going to work on the Kerry campaign, that was in The New York Times yesterday?” Among Carlson, Carville, Cooper, King and Begala, only Begala seemed alive to the potential hot potato implicit in the question. His halting reply: “Yes — no, I work for CNN, Larry, I’m going to keep working for CNN if they’ll have me. I absolutely … I support John Kerry. And I will advise him as I would advise any Democrat who wants advice, but I do it for free and I do it for love. So I’m going to continue to advise Kerry and support him but I’m not going to work for anybody but CNN.”

All this intermarriage is the net result, of course, of a slippery slope that news outlets first ventured onto by hiring ex-politicos in the first place — a trend that the Washington Post’s Howie Kurtz derided yesterday as one in which “political operatives, moonlighting hacks, unemployed pols and pseudo-celebrities have become interchangeable in the profession formerly known as journalism.” After all, once you hire, say, a presidential speech writer as a political reporter after his boss gets run out of town, it’s a short (and tempting) step to hire him as a reporter while he’s still churning out boilerplate and stump speeches for a candidate.

But it’s a step that comes at a cost — and in this case that cost may be one more lost thread from the campaign press’ already tattered credibility. By keeping two attack dogs like Carville and Begala on the payroll even after they sign on with the Kerry campaign, the cable network puts that at risk. (Meanwhile, what little alarm has been raised about Begala/Carville’s double employment stint with CNN/Kerry has been strangely muted. Somehow, we suspect there would be more indignant outcry about all this if two Fox News headliners — say Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly — had joined the Bush campaign as advisors, while continuing on at Fox.)

However it plays out, the only losers in this incestuous minuet of the observed and the observers are the readers and the viewers.

Liz Cox Barrett

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.