Every news organization makes mistakes. Journalism is an imperfect craft and is sometimes practiced at a breakneck pace. The question is: What do news outlets do when confronted with overwhelming evidence that they messed up? That’s the challenge CNN now faces in the wake of its extraordinary and inexplicable decision to hire a career GOP operative with absolutely no journalism experience as its new political director.
Owning up to mistakes is even tougher when management makes them, and these are mistakes that clearly played out over a weeks-long hiring process. News organizations don't hire highly paid political directors on a whim. The current controversy was sparked when Sarah Isgur was tapped by CNN to help oversee the network's unfolding campaign coverage. A hardcore partisan, Isgur has spent her career flacking for Republicans such as Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, and Carly Fiorina. Until last year, Isgur worked as a spokesperson for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice.
If CNN wants to hire conservatives like Isgur to go on camera and regurgitate Trump White House talking points, that's the network's prerogative. But to hire someone with Isgur's journalism-free resume to work behind the scenes and oversee campaign coverage is utterly baffling.
"Her Twitter includes fact-free invectives against liberals and repeatedly rails against the ‘abortion industry,’" the Daily Beast noted.
To maintain its reputation as an independent source of political news, CNN needs to cut ties with Isgur and admit that her hiring was a mistake. Otherwise, it's going to be difficult for Democrats to trust CNN this campaign season. And here’s a suddenly relevant question: Should the Democratic National Committee rethink the idea of CNN hosting upcoming debates for Democratic candidates?
The move is especially stunning because the upcoming Republican primary looks to be a non-event, with Trump expected to waltz to the party's nomination once again. So why is CNN hiring a right-wing operative to basically help coordinate coverage of the Democratic primary for the next year?
And yes, it’s almost beyond comprehension for CNN to so obviously try to placate the GOP with Isgur's hiring while Trump simultaneously attacks the network and publicly denigrates its employees. Last year, the White House lashed out at CNN by pulling reporter Jim Acosta's press pass. Trump routinely defames the network on Twitter. And CNN's response is to hire as a newsroom executive someone who has pledged her loyalty to Trump? How else do you describe this except the journalism equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome? Keep in mind that this is the same Trump-obsessed network that has conceded it went overboard with nonstop Trump coverage in 2016. But it's hard to see how, with Isgur's hiring, the network is committed to doing a better job covering Democrats during the 2020 campaign.
The whole scenario remains utterly puzzling. It's hard to believe that a hire like this would pass through the highest echelons of CNN management without anybody from the newsroom raising their hand and saying, “Folks, this is a really, really bad idea.” My hope is that those reservations were registered and then simply overruled. Because if nobody at CNN thought this was a problem, the network has a bigger issues than I thought.
Today, CNN staffers are reportedly demoralized by the Isgur move.
It's inconceivable that a Hillary Clinton or a Bernie Sanders spokesperson from 2016 would be hired by CNN as a new political director, in part because it’s a really bad idea. CNN political directors should be journalists, period. Those Democrats would also never be hired because CNN management would never risk unleashing the right-wing backlash that such a hiring would spark. Meanwhile, one of the problems in assessing the hire is that we don't know what her responsibilities are—because CNN won’t explain them publicly. A news network that demands transparency of others has suddenly gone quiet in the face of controversy.
For now, CNN executives are only willing to defend the Isgur move while speaking anonymously to CNN's media reporter, Brian Stelter. He reported that they defended Isgur as "an exceptional person whose political experience will improve CNN's coverage," whatever that means.
If CNN wants to send a message of complete capitulation to the GOP, then it will welcome Isgur aboard. If CNN wants to recommit itself to being an independent outpost of news reporting, it will cut ties with her and admit its mistake.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.