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Cable News Has a Problem, But It’s Not Sarah Isgur Flores

The quality of work any cable network can do is constrained by the tastes of its audience.
February 22, 2019
Cable News Has a Problem, But It’s Not Sarah Isgur Flores
(Rob Kim/Getty Images)

CNN has hired a former Trump administration staffer named Sarah Isgur Flores and people in the media—and at CNN—are upset. Very, very upset. They seem to believe that bringing a Trump staffer in-house is a violation of journalistic ethics, or at least an example of the kind of “makeup hires” to guard against claims of media bias that liberals frequently complain about in media.

These complaints are both wrong and right. But unpacking all of this requires a lot of inside baseball. So unless you’re really into media stories, you might want to bail out now.

You’ve been warned.

Sarah Isgur Flores was a reasonably established politico who had worked for Mitt Romney, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz before going into the Trump administration as Jeff Sessions’ spokewoman. CNN has now hired her as a political editor who will be part of a team of people coordinating the network’s election coverage. The network says she may also appear on camera from time to time.

In response, Margaret Sullivan writes that Isgur’s hiring

[S]trongly suggests that the network’s big thinkers—including head honcho Jeff Zucker—are aiming for a kind of false fairness: a defensive, both-sides-are-equal kind of political coverage that inevitably fails to serve the voting public.

This strikes me as almost completely wrong.

I have no brief for Isgur. I don’t know her; I’ve never even emailed her. I can only tell you that her reputation in the business is—rightly or wrongly—that she’s smart and straightforward and didn’t play games with reporters.

Also, describing Isgur as a “Trumper” strikes me as unfair. (I mentioned she worked for Mitt Romney, right?) Her political pedigree is pretty far from Trumpism. She worked for a year and a half in the administration running communications for one of the few grownups who put his constitutional duties above loyalty to the president. (Whatever you think of Sessions’ politics, he put up with months of abuse from Trump for doing the right thing and recusing himself from the Russia investigations.) A lot of people have prostituted themselves to work in this White House. There’s no evidence that I’ve seen that she’s one of them.

Also: Journalism isn’t rocket science. There’s no exam you have to pass to be a Professional Journalist. They’ll let anyone do this stuff. (Heck, the only reason I’m in journalism is because I got rejected from one-sixth of the medical schools in the continental United States.) The argument that Isgur isn’t “qualified” for the job is ridiculous. If you’re smart and you know politics, you can figure out most of the mechanics of what we do for a living pretty fast.

All of which is to say that CNN can hire whoever they want and if they hadn’t hired Isgur, that would have been fine, too. But hiring her isn’t some sort of war crime against the Holy Church of Journalism. Maybe she’ll be good at this gig and maybe she won’t. But it’s a perfectly reasonable HR decision.

What’s weird, honestly, is that so many people in the media would freak out about one midlevel, behind-the-scenes hire at a gigantic, multinational corporation.

Except that you can understand exactly why people are freaking out: Because false equivalence is a real thing in broadcast media.

Consider the case of a different CNN hire: Corey Lewandowski. After Lewandowski was pushed out of the Trump campaign in 2016, CNN hired him as an on-air analyst.

Lewandowski was a part-time employee with other sources of income—and thus other conflicts of interest. He had almost certainly signed a non-disparagement agreement with Trump, though when asked about it at the time he wouldn’t even give a straight yes or no. And yet Lewandowski was paid to “analyze” his former employer on camera. He wasn’t the only one. CNN hired Jason Miller, too. Though at least Miller acknowledged that he was contractually bound by an NDA to not criticize Trump.

Let me tell you a secret: CNN wasn’t paying Lewandowski and Miller to improve its product by giving the audience valuable, candid insights. The network was paying them to make it look like it was being “fair” to the Trump campaign.

That is what false fairness looks like. And it’s insane because it does nobody any good. Except for the guys cashing the paychecks.

There’s been a lot of that in the age of Trump where people with obvious conflicts of interest regarding Trump have been pushed out in front of a camera to give “the other side” of whatever the controversy of the day is.

And there’s another class of analysts who may not have outright conflicts, but who are booked solely because they are utterly, completely reliable and willing to defend anything Trump says, no matter what, full stop.

CNN has hired people like that, too. And not just CNN. All of the cable networks do it. Have you ever wondered why?

There is a kabuki aspect to a lot of what gets shown on cable news where “both sides” is taken to mean that you literally have to have each side of every specific argument represented, rather than, say, each side of a political worldview.

There are plenty of quasi Trump-supporting nationalist types in the media who the cable networks could engage to honestly and honorably represent the views of what might approximately be called a new nationalist-conservatism: William Voegeli, Charles Kesler, Christopher Caldwell, Ethan Epstein, Scott Johnson—Ann Coulter, even. The problem is, these people can’t be counted on to defend Trump, night after night, on everything because they’re not hacks. And that’s what the kabuki dynamics of cable news demand. Which is why we get Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany and Diamond and Silk.

The problem with cable news isn’t that media executives are suckered by a naive urge to provide fairness or equivalence to all points of view. It’s that the spectacle of broadcast news as practiced for the last 20 years requires conflict. Conflict requires an endless stream of arguments in which two sides fight for four minutes at a time. And viewers like it.

The problem isn’t Sarah Isgur Flores or a philosophy of equal-time false fairness. The problem is that the quality of work any cable network can do is constrained by the tastes of its audience.

The problem, as always, is us.

And if anything, bringing a professional political operative like Isgur in-house and giving her some ownership over the back end of the product—as opposed to allowing hacks like Lewandowski and Lord to use the network as side-grifts in exchange for being window dressing—is probably a good thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.