Hiring full-time political propagandists to work as part-time political analysts long has been a trick of the trade for TV networks looking for a cheap way to fill air time. Turn on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News, and you’re bound to see Paul Begala, Corey Lewandowski, Kayleigh McEnany or Newt Gingrich yakking away about their parties.
Sometimes it’s entertaining. Sometimes it’s not. But it always is damaging – especially in an election year when millions of Americans believe the vote for president is “rigged” and that the nebulous and all-powerful “media” has something to do with it.
As the CNN-sponsored saga over moonlighting Democratic strategist Donna Brazile proved this week, there is a cost for all that yakking – and it will be paid not in dollars, but in public trust.
On Monday, the network cut ties with Brazile, citing hacked emails that show she shamefully gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign a sneak peek of questions posed in two of its candidate forums earlier this year.
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“We are completely uncomfortable with what we have learned about her interactions with the Clinton campaign,” a CNN spokeswoman said on Monday, explaining that Brazile had quit in October.
No one should be surprised at this turn of events – certainly not CNN. Sure, it took WikiLeaks to reveal that Brazile sent debate questions to Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, with vows to “send a few more.” But this isn’t just about Brazile being dishonest.
Common sense would dictate that such collusion was bound to happen, given her ties to the Clintons and paid job of interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Dual loyalties are hard to manage; that’s why conflict-of-interest rules were invented.
This incident should serve as a warning for every news organization that likes to play both sides of the fence to stop doing it. It’s inappropriate, for example, for Fox News’ Sean Hannity to give such an inordinate amount of airtime and public praise to Republican nominee Donald Trump. Or for CNN to have Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, commingled with neutral political analysts, even though he was sitting with other paid aides on Trump’s campaign plane as late as October. Or for MSNBC to virtually serve as the Clinton election network.
No wonder so many Americans think media outlets are coordinating their coverage with campaigns. Many of the institutions that people once trusted have taken a beating in this bruising campaign season. It started with the political parties themselves and has spread to the FBI, thanks to Director James Comey’s vague, last-minute announcement about the Clinton email probe.
Public trust, like democracy, is a fragile thing. There are only so many hits it can take.