What is CNN thinking?
The decision by CNN to hire Republican political operative Sarah Isgur Flores, who most recently served as a spokeswoman for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to help oversee 2020 political coverage makes absolutely no sense.
CNN has an unfortunate history of signing up totally predictable partisans as commentators (see President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski). That’s one of the least appealing aspects of cable news, unleashing combatants on each side of an issue and letting them go at it, providing ample heat but no light. Cable news has long served as a full employment act for failed presidential candidates, from Fox News’ Mike Huckabee to CNN’s John Kasich.
But this is much, much worse.
Why would you pick a veteran of the Trump administration, one unencumbered by journalism experience, to help shape coverage of the president’s reelection campaign? It’s not like there aren’t a lot of qualified journalists who could use the work.
And the issue here isn’t that she’s affiliated with Trump. The move would be just as bad if a Democrat were involved. Can you imagine the uproar on the right if CNN hired Philippe Reines, Hillary Clinton defender extraordinaire, for a similar role?
In journalism, it’s often said that a perceived conflict of interest is as bad as an actual one. Who would have confidence in the decisions of a longtime partisan warrior, particularly one fresh from an administration squarely in her new purview?
Flores, who has worked for the Republican National Committee, Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina, will not be involved in coverage of the Justice Department, according to Politico, which broke the news of her new gig. But it seems to me she should recuse herself from coverage of the 2020 campaign rather than direct it.
The irony, of course, is that for the president, with his unrelenting campaign against “fake news” (read: anything he doesn’t like) and his frequent declarations that the press is the “enemy of the people,” CNN seems to be Public Enemy #1. The cable network is often the target of his anti-media wrath. A particular bête noire for the president is CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, whom he labeled as “unprofessional” before briefly revoking his briefing press pass last November.
It’s true that Flores is hardly Hope Hicks when it comes to Trump loyalists. In fact, she was highly critical of the president when she was working for GOP presidential candidate Fiorina. As a result, she had to do a little groveling to get her job with Sessions. “Trump’s advisers knew there was only one way Sessions would be able to hire her: If she kowtowed to Trump,” The Washington Post reported last year. “So 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.”
But she hardly has a track record as a fan of her new employer, having once referred to it in a tweet as the “Clinton News Network.”
The revolving door between politics and journalism has long been a matter of concern. Way back in 1997, University of Virginia political science professor Larry J. Sabato expressed the view that “one reason people have less respect for the media is the revolving door.”
But sometimes the revolving stops in a good place. The late “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert, a revered figure in journalism, once worked for the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Similarly, Clintonite George Stephanopoulos also has made a successful transition from politics to news and, at any rate, as a host and commentator, Stephanopoulos’ role is vastly different than that of Flores’, who will be tasked with coordinating coverage.
These exceptions are hardly a reason for reassurance in this case.
CNN media reporter Brian Stelter reports that network staffers are upset about the Flores hire. No wonder.
Let’s hope CNN comes to its senses and rethinks this absurd move.
Rem Rieder is a former media columnist and editor-at-large at USA TODAY and, previously, the longtime editor of American Journalism Review.