CNN reporters ‘up in arms’ over GOP operative hire

In October 2013, Sarah Isgur Flores, a deputy communications director at the Republican National Committee, posted on Twitter to vent at CNN: “Seriously?” she asked, pointing to a chyron labeling a political group as “anti-gay, anti-abortion.” In June 2014, she was at it again, slamming CNN as the “Clinton News Network.” In 2015, Isgur—now deputy manager of Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign—shared articles from right-wing websites calling Chris Cuomo, a CNN anchor, “despicable” and a shill for “Planned Parenthood propaganda.” In December 2016, a few weeks after the election, Isgur got the chance to air her grievances in person: during a dinner at Harvard, she was one of a number of campaign operatives to heckle Jeff Zucker, CNN’s president, when he defended his network’s coverage of Donald Trump. Isgur may have felt aggrieved by Trump’s disproportionate free airtime, but she quickly joined his administration. Early in 2017, she started work as the Justice Department’s lead spokesperson.

It was something of a shock, then, when Politico reported yesterday morning that CNN has hired Isgur, who has no journalistic experience, as a senior political editor. Outside journalists and media commentators swiftly scorned the decision; inside CNN, concern grew. “It’s extremely demoralizing for everyone here,” one anonymous staffer told The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani. A “baffled editor” told Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, that “reporters are up in arms about this.” One of those reporters added: “I’m really, really worried about this, and concerned about the ethical implications of taking direction on stories from someone I covered when she was an operative.”

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The revolving door is not new, but on this occasion, it spun so fast it almost came off its hinges. Hiring a serving administration flack into an editorial role at a major network presents a conflict of interest in the best of circumstances—and these are not the best of circumstances. As The Washington Post previously reported, Isgur, who repeatedly criticized Trump during the 2016 GOP primary, pledged loyalty to the president in the Oval Office as she angled for a job in his administration; going forward, she’ll (presumably) help shape coverage of his reelection effort. Last night, a CNN spokesperson told Vox that Isgur would not be involved in coverage of the Justice Department. But where will that line be drawn? The Justice Department is involved in a host of policy areas that will likely figure prominently on the campaign trail—not least the web of investigations around Trump and his associates.

According to Vox, the CNN spokesperson said Isgur will not be “leading, overseeing, or running political coverage” but instead “helping to coordinate coverage across TV and Digital”; a source added, to the Post’s Paul Farhi, that “she will make sure the pieces are getting on the right shows… make sure a digital story is posted at the right time.” But that doesn’t quite square with what CNN executives told Stelter: namely, that Isgur was hired because she’s “an exceptional person whose political experience will improve CNN’s coverage.” Posting a digital story at the right time does not require political experience—and in an industry that’s been hammered by mass layoffs, there are plenty of “exceptional” trained journalists looking for that sort of work. Even if you buy the political point, couldn’t CNN have found an operative from outside of a sitting administration? Why Isgur? Why now?

An anonymous network source told Stelter that “There are plenty of examples of people going from high profile political jobs to news networks.” But that argument doesn’t really hold either. The examples the source cited—George Stephanopoulos, Nicolle Wallace, Dana Perino, and Tim Russert—are all high-profile, on-air personalities. That doesn’t obviate scrutiny of their political pasts, but at least they are, or were, front of camera, where viewers can see and hear them. Editors are arguably more important than star anchors in framing coverage, yet they often operate in a black box. There’s much less precedent for political operatives stepping into this kind of work: Caitlin Conant, the political director of CBS News, is a former Republican staffer, but she didn’t step straight from the latter job into the former.

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For now, uncertainty reigns: as another CNN staffer told Stelter, “I’m sure [Isgur] is a wonderful person, but no one knows what she’ll be doing.” (Reports that she’ll appear occasionally as an on-air pundit only add to this confusion.) CNN should urgently, and publicly, clarify Isgur’s role, and spell out what firewalls—if any—it will erect to keep her from covering her former colleagues. A little transparency won’t eliminate concerns; not by a long shot. But it would help.

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Below, more on Isgur and CNN:

  • On background: “A dive into Isgur’s social media presence suggests her lack of fitness for her new role goes deeper than mere politics,” Vox’s Aaron Rupar writes. “Isgur pushed a false equivalency to defend Trump’s first iteration of the Muslim ban, criticized journalists for covering Trump’s tweets, attacked reporters for accurately pointing out that Trump spent years pushing a racist conspiracy theory about Obama’s place of birth, and even praised Kellyanne Conway for ‘showing America what real feminism looks like.’”
  • Rough Justice: Isgur comes to CNN from an administration that’s made no secret of its contempt for the press. The Justice Department, where she worked, has cracked down on whistleblowers and seized phone and email records, including those belonging to New York Times reporter Ali Watkins.
  • It keeps on turning: More news from behind the revolving door: Lindsay Walters, the White House deputy press secretary, will quit in April to join PR firm Edelman. And Marc Short, the former White House legislative affairs director who’s since served as a paid contributor on CNN, is returning to the administration as chief of staff to Mike Pence.
  • Bern booking: CNN’s 2020 coverage has already come under fire—its town hall with Howard Schultz last week met a furious response in some quarters, for example. The town-hall format has attracted broader scrutiny: as the Post’s Farhi reported over the weekend, “CNN has kept most of the details of its potentially kingmaking productions quiet, particularly how it selects those it favors with their own forum.” Yesterday, the network unveiled Bernie Sanders as its next guest—just hours after the Vermont senator announced that he’s running. He’ll face Wolf Blitzer and a studio audience on Monday.


Other notable stories:

  • Earlier this week, Egyptian officials detained David Kirkpatrick, a reporter for the Times, on his arrival at Cairo airport, held him without food or water for seven hours, then put him on a return flight to London. “Of late, a lack of pushback from the United States has emboldened Egypt’s security forces to take stronger action against representatives of Western news outlets, including expulsion,” the Times’s Declan Walsh writes.
  • Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas called yesterday for the court to reconsider its 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, a ruling which has made it harder for public officials to win libel suits. “New York Times and the court’s decisions extending it were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law,” Thomas wrote in an opinion related to a case involving Bill Cosby. Trump famously promised, on the campaign trail, that he would “open up our libel laws” if he became president.
  • Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School student who found himself at the center of a viral video—and bitter national debate—last month, is suing The Washington Post for $250 million. The law firm representing Sandmann called the Post’s reporting “a modern day form of McCarthyism,” adding, “This is only the beginning.”
  • CJR’s Alexandria Neason revisits a fraught ethical question: should journalists help sources in need? “We tend to say that helping sources is prohibited, asserting that this is a defense against allowing coverage to be influenced,” Neason writes. “But in reality, such a narrow position ignores the power dynamics inherent in an exchange between a Western journalist, backed by the resources of a news organization, and sources in a place that is struggling.”
  • Last April, 14 senior staffers from Cumhuriyet, a Turkish opposition newspaper, were sentenced for “aiding a terror group.” Yesterday, an appeals court upheld their convictions, with six of the group ordered to jail, the AP reports. Last year, Shawn Carrié and Asmaa Omar profiled Cumhuriyet for CJR, calling it “the last independent newsroom in Turkey.”
  • Yesterday, the Knight Foundation revealed the first beneficiaries of its $300 million commitment to rebuilding local news ecosystems. Grantees include ProPublica, Report for America, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
  • In response to a Medium post written by an activist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, the editor of The Economist, admitted that the magazine has a diversity problem—less than 1 percent of its staff is black, BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano reports. The activist, Ahmed Olayinka Sule, remains unimpressed: “What is the point… if nothing has been done about it?” he said.
  • And American Public Media’s In the Dark became the first podcast to win a Polk Award yesterday. Other 2019 Polk recipients include Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar, in the foreign reporting category. Congratulations to all the winners.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.