Columbia Journalism Review
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.”
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.
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.
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.
As has become common in the Trump era, a book tour just jump-started an important news cycle. Last Thursday morning, 60 Minutes dropped clips from its interview with Andrew McCabe, the former acting director of the FBI, pegged to his new memoir, The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump. Around the same time, The Atlantic released an excerpt. McCabe’s claims on 60 Minutes—that officials discussed how Trump might be removed from office under the 25th Amendment and that Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, offered to wear a hidden wire to record the president—have driven sustained media interest in the book, even though, according to NPR, they don’t specifically appear in it. As The Threat hits shelves today, McCabe will be plugging it on NBC’s Today show.
Amid the excited amplification of McCabe’s claims, some outlets took time to assess the reliability of his narrative. Some reporters scrutinized McCabe’s sourcing, stressing, for example, that another striking claim—that Trump took Vladimir Putin’s word on North Korea over that of his own intelligence staff—is second-hand, not a personal recollection. Others pointed out that McCabe was fired from the FBI last year; in a report subsequently delivered to Congress, the Justice Department inspector general accused him of violating the bureau’s media policy, then misleading investigators about it. Writing on Friday, Josh Campbell, an FBI staffer turned CNN analyst, asked, “With so many people involved in the book now caught lying, how are we to make sense of things?”
The Justice Department’s motives in painting McCabe as dishonest should be handled with care. Beyond this wheel of intrigue, however, simpler questions beg answers. As Katy Tur asked on MSNBC, is McCabe believable, or is he just selling a book? But those options aren’t mutually exclusive. In McCabe’s case, the answer might be: both.
Many commentators pointed out that McCabe’s allegations about the 25th Amendment and Rosenstein’s wire confirm reporting, by Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt, that first appeared in The New York Times last September. Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney, told Tur, “McCabe is not really revealing any new facts here.” Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes struck a similar note; the book rollout, they wrote, “should not in any profound respect change one’s understanding of L’Affaire Russe or the investigation of it.” Nonetheless, McCabe’s media round has moved this story forward. McCabe denied suggestions, ventured in response to the Times’s initial reporting, that Rosenstein may have been joking when he offered to wear a wire. And, as Jurecic and Wittes note, McCabe has moved the story beyond the murky realm of anonymous sourcing.
As has often been the case in the Trump era, the president himself has helped hold an insider account of administration chaos in the spotlight. Ever since the 60 Minutes clip dropped on Thursday, Trump has excoriated McCabe in a series of wild tweets. Per usual, his anger has spiraled round the right-wing mediasphere, with Fox hosts and commentators, in particular, lining up to describe the 25th Amendment discussions McCabe recalls as an attempted “coup.” Last night on Twitter, Trump made the TV–White House feedback loop explicit, quoting Fox News’ Sean Hannity on the “coup” and exclaiming, “Treason!” An hour or so later, Trump followed up: “Remember this, Andrew McCabe didn’t go to the bathroom without the approval of Leakin’ James Comey!”
All this, of course, has done wonders for McCabe’s book sales—overnight, it ascended to the number-one spot on Amazon’s best sellers list, ending the long reign of Michelle Obama’s Becoming. (As of this morning, The Threat is at number two, with Becoming at three.) It’s hard to escape the feeling, once again, that we’re trapped in some sort of Trump–Twitter–media–publishing industrial complex. But the Trump era’s slew of insider accounts—and, at least in McCabe’s case, the publicity surrounding them—helps build a real-time historical record of Trump’s presidency. Massaging egos and bank balances may be an unavoidable side effect of covering it.
Below, more on books:
- “The president that doesn’t read”: Throughout his presidency, Trump has taken a special interest in books that cover him—often taking to Twitter to promote those that praise him and trash those that don’t. In November, the Times’s Katie Rogers shared a round-up.
- “A rapid-fire G-man memoir”: The Times’s Dwight Garner weighs The Threat’s literary merits: “McCabe’s prose is lean. (Not that he wrote this book. In his acknowledgments, he thanks ‘a great writing and editing team,’)” Garner writes. The result is “better than any book typed this quickly has a right to be.”
- “Time to Panic”: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, in which David Wallace-Wells lays out the existential threat of climate change, is also out today. Wallace-Wells, who wrote about the subject for New York in 2017, previewed the book in a weekend op-ed for the Times.
Other notable stories:
- For CJR, Mya Frazier reports concerns about cost-cutting within the AP’s foreign press service: “Current and former correspondents and bureau chiefs detail a litany of changes, including the shrinking of its global footprint as bureaus are quietly closed; the phasing out of the salaried ‘expat package’ for correspondents; and the reliance on local stringers and staffers, who often are paid far less than full-time American correspondents once were.”
- CNN hosted its third town hall of the 2020 election cycle last night, with Amy Klobuchar taking voters’ questions in Manchester, New Hampshire. (The broadcast was an improvement on CNN’s previous town hall, with Howard Schultz.) The Post’s Paul Farhi reports that other Democratic candidates are wondering when, exactly, their CNN town hall invite might drop; the network has kept quiet about its selection criteria, Farhi writes. Those candidates now include Bernie Sanders: the Vermont senator just announced he’s running in an interview with CBS This Morning’s John Dickerson.
- The Post’s Dave Weigel has a useful reminder that, when it comes to covering the campaign, Twitter may not be the most reliable source: “The Democratic electorate showing up to meet its candidates is far less ideological and skeptical than the one that lives on social media,” he writes. Relatedly, the Times’s Astead W. Herndon finds that voters don’t really care about Elizabeth Warren’s DNA-test blunder, despite pundit preoccupation with the issue.
- Keith Burris, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial director whose Martin Luther King, Jr., Day editorial last year was condemned by that paper’s staff, has been promoted to executive editor, The Incline’s Colin Deppen reports. Burris, who was also linked to the high-profile firing of Rob Rogers, an editorial cartoonist, will continue to direct the editorial pages of the Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade, which were controversially merged last year. Burris’s appointment follows last week’s extraordinary newsroom outburst from John Robinson Block, the Post-Gazette’s publisher. For CJR, Kim Lyons runs through the details.
- Capitol Forum, a subscription service that produces policy reports on topics including consumer protection and antitrust enforcement, is suing Bloomberg for “free riding” on its output. The case marks a rare claim of “misappropriation” under the “hot news” doctrine, an arcane legal principle that has not faced proper scrutiny in the digital age, Jonathan Peters writes for CJR.
- In France, 10 government ministers, including Edouard Philippe, the country’s prime minister, are spending today taking questions on Twitch, the video-game livestreaming platform, Politico’s Rym Momtaz reports. Ministers are hoping to engage young people in France’s ongoing “grand debate,” a response to the recent Gilets Jaunes protest wave.
- German prosecutors are investigating a journalist from the Financial Times as part of a probe into possible market manipulation, Reuters’s Arno Schuetze reports. The paper, which has published a series of stories alleging fraud at Wirecard, a Munich-based payment processing company, denied any suggestion its reporting had been unethical.
- In the UK yesterday, seven lawmakers broke away from the opposition Labour Party to form a new independent grouping in Parliament, citing, among other things, Labour’s lackluster efforts to eradicate anti-Semitism from its ranks. As one of the seven spoke at a press conference, an unknown voice on a BBC livestream was heard muttering, “between this and Brexit, we’re fucked.”
- And Aaron Sorkin is reportedly in talks to reboot The Newsroom. Media Twitter does not seem impressed.
“Digital gangsters.” In a scathing report out today, lawmakers on a high-profile committee of the British Parliament tag that description to Facebook, warning the tech giant and its competitors not to act like they are “ahead of and beyond the law.” Facebook, the lawmakers say, “intentionally and knowingly” broke data privacy and competition laws (Facebook denies this), and should be subjected to multi-pronged oversight—including a compulsory code of ethics and an independent regulator with legal teeth—going forward. “Facebook continues to choose profit over data security,” they write.
The House of Commons’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport select committee opened its inquiry into social media giants in 2017. Back then, its focus was the spread of “fake news”—a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic following the UK Brexit referendum and US election in 2016. Last March, however, a different scandal exploded: The New York Times and London Observer reported that Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from the profiles of 50 million Facebook users, then mined it to profile and target voters on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. As Facebook flailed through the remainder of 2018, the UK committee publicly raised the stakes. In November, it ordered Ted Kramer, a US tech executive who was in London for a business trip, to surrender documents from a California lawsuit involving Facebook and his app; when Kramer refused, Damian Collins, the committee’s Conservative chair, dispatched the Serjeant-at-Arms to escort Kramer to Parliament. Days later, Collins chaired an “International Grand Committee on Disinformation,” bringing together lawmakers from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore, and the UK. When Mark Zuckerberg refused to attend (he sent a deputy), he got the classic empty-seat-with-his-name-on-it treatment.
Echoes of those theatrics ring through today’s final report. The committee lays out its conclusion, based on the documents it obtained from Kramer, that Facebook was “willing to override its users’ privacy settings in order to transfer data” to some app developers while “starving” others, CNN reports. Lawmakers also accuse Zuckerberg of contempt of Parliament for his repeat refusals to show, and of making “simply untrue” statements about his company’s data-selling practices. Zuckerberg “continually fails to show the levels of leadership and personal responsibility that should be expected from someone who sits at the top of one of the world’s biggest companies,” Collins says. Next time Zuckerberg sets foot on British soil, he can expect a formal summons.
Coming from public officials, these are extraordinary charges lodged in incendiary language. It’s no surprise they’ve made global headlines this morning. The inquiry as a whole and the coverage its attracted, however, are perhaps best understood not as a grenade but as a time capsule. Since the inquiry launched, public and media debate has moved beyond the “fake news” problem, training a harsh spotlight on social giants’ unscrupulous use of our personal data, at least where Facebook is concerned. As the debate has widened, its tone has become angrier. And Facebook’s insistence that it’s a good actor grappling with thorny problems has worn thin. Today’s report mirrors this broadening picture. While its title still refers broadly to disinformation and fake news, CNN’s Hadas Gold notes, “the other title might as well be ‘Facebook: Digital gangsters’ because it’s Facebook that bears most of the heat.”
The committee that produced the report is a legislative oversight mechanism, not an arm of the British government—and the British government, as you may have noticed, is a little busy right now. Nonetheless, Facebook should sweat its stringent regulatory recommendations. At one point, the report namechecks Germany, where social media companies already face harsh fines when they fail to act quickly on hate speech. Britain may be untangling itself from its European partners. But where Facebook is concerned, they’re closer to being on the same page.
Below, more on Facebook and the Parliamentary report:
- The Wright stuff: Jeremy Wright, the British government minister for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, is en route to California, where he’ll meet with top tech executives including, he says, Zuckerberg. The welcoming party for Wright could well include a former UK government colleague, Nick Clegg, who since became Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications. In October, I profiled Clegg for CJR.
- A public rival? Britain’s opposition Labour Party wholeheartedly welcomed today’s report: “We need new independent regulation with a tough powers and sanctions regime to curb the worst excesses of surveillance capitalism and the forces trying to use technology to subvert our democracy,” Tom Watson, its deputy leader, said. Last year, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, suggested taxing Facebook to fund the BBC, and even mooted the creation of a publicly owned social network.
- Kint’s hints: On Twitter, Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, has a useful thread on what the report could mean for Facebook in the US. “Boom. Huge,” he writes. “Report states based on evidence from ICO investigation that Facebook had at least 3 senior managers aware of Cambridge Analytica ‘breach’ prior to Dec 2015.”
- Cairncross purposes: Today’s report follows the publication, last week, of the Cairncross Review, an independent, government-commissioned inquiry into the state of Britain’s media. As well as public subsidies for local news, the review also suggested better regulation of social media companies, as well as a public investigation of the Google–Facebook ad duopoly. For CJR, Emily Bell assessed the findings.
Other notable stories:
- Late last month, news broke that Jussie Smollett, who stars in Empire, had been attacked in downtown Chicago; two masked men, it was reported, hurled racist and homophobic abuse and yelled about “MAGA country” as they put a rope around Smollett’s neck and poured bleach over him. Over the weekend, the story shifted: citing sources in law enforcement, CBS Chicago and others reported that the attack may have been rehearsed and staged (Smollett’s attorneys deny that claim). “The narrative that just a week ago seemed cut-and-dry has become messy and divisive—and it’s all playing out again on social media,” the AP’s Lindsey Bahr writes.
- As expected, Trump declared a state of emergency on Friday morning. During a remarkable Rose Garden press conference, he said, among many, many other things, that “I didn’t need to do this”—a line which could come back to haunt him in court. After Alec Baldwin satirized the presser in a Saturday Night Live cold open, Trump tweeted: “how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into. This is the real Collusion!” The media is “THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,” he added shortly afterward.
- As lawmakers filed through the Senate basement on their way to vote on the spending bill last Thursday, Capitol Police officers physically shoved and blocked reporters who tried to talk to them, Roll Call’s Katherine Tully-McManus reports. According to an audio recording of the confrontation, one reporter told officers, “I am a pregnant woman and you just pushed me.”
- As the 2020 campaign kicks into gear, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan wonders how sexist coverage of female candidates might get. “One of the qualities that makes women unlikable? Ambition. Which is, after all, hard to avoid in a candidate for president of the United States,” Sullivan writes. “We’re a sexist society, and the media reflect and amplify this.”
- Heather Nauert, the former Fox anchor and State Department spokesperson, has pulled her name from consideration to be the next US ambassador to the United Nations. A background check found that Nauert—who would have faced a tough confirmation process anyway due to her lack of diplomatic experience—once employed a nanny who was not authorized to work in the US, Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs, Nick Wadhams, and Margaret Talev report.
- For CJR, Amal Ahmed looks at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Michigan–based research institute that aims to bust stereotypical portrayals of Muslim Americans by putting better data in the hands of journalists and public policy experts.
- Last week, Google and Apple were criticized for carrying Absher, a Saudi government app that allows male guardians to track and impede women’s movements. While Absher is “awful,” The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi writes, it isn’t the root of the problem: one Saudi woman even told her that the app can help women circumnavigate repressive laws. “It feels more than a little hypocritical for politicians to be outraged about an app when both Democrats and Republicans have a long history of ignoring gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia,” Mahdawi writes.
- Days after staffers at the Hartford Courant announced their intention to unionize, management at the publication and its parent company, Tribune Publishing, voluntarily recognized the effort, the Courant’s David Owens reports.
- And The Guardian’s Alex Hern reports on a “revolutionary AI system” that can write convincing fake news stories from simple prompts. “OpenAI, a nonprofit research company backed by Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Sam Altman, and others, says its new AI model is so good and the risk of malicious use so high that it is breaking from its normal practice of releasing the full research to the public.” The Guardian does have a demo.