Why CNN shouldn’t have hired Corey Lewandowski

Corey Lewandowski. Photo via CNN.
Corey Lewandowski. Photo via CNN.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I don’t care that Corey Lewandowski is a partisan hack. And though it bothers me that he was Donald Trump’s thuggish enforcer, I don’t think it disqualifies him from sitting in front of a TV camera and extolling Trump’s alleged virtues.

But it does bother me—a lot—that CNN would give a platform to Lewandowski even though he may not be legally free to voice his honest opinion. That’s the least the network should get for the $500,000 it is reportedly paying him.

To recap briefly: Trump fired Lewandowski as his campaign manager a week ago Monday. Just two days later Lewandowski signed on with CNN to provide pro-Trump commentary. The hiring has been greeted with a considerable amount of outrage because of Lewandowski’s role in herding reporters into pens, banning certain journalists as well as entire news organizations from Trump events, and grabbing the arm of a female reporter hard enough that he was charged with assault. (The charge was later dropped.)

The real mind-bender, though, is that Lewandowski—who remains a true believer in Trump despite the firing—signed a non-disclosure agreement when he left the campaign. Even worse, he may also have signed a non-disparagement agreement. On the face of it, that would seem to mean there exists a legal document somewhere that says Lewandowski cannot criticize Trump. Now, maybe Lewandowski wouldn’t anyway. But there is an enormous difference between won’tand can’t. (We talked about the Lewandowski matter last week on WGBH-TV’s Beat the Press.)

Several of CNN’s on-air journalists have come up huge in holding their network to account. Last week Erin Burnett asked Lewandowski directly whether he had signed a non-disparagement agreement. Lewandowski did not answer the question. “Let me tell you who I am,” he said. “I am a guy who calls balls and strikes, I am going to tell it like it is.”

CNN media reporter Brian Stelter wrote about the situation last week and devoted a nine-minute-plus segment to it Sunday on Reliable Sources. Stelter, like Burnett, deserves credit for focusing on what exactly Lewandowski may have signed when he left the Trump campaign.

Should CNN run a disclosure every time Lewandowski opens his mouth? Yes, replied one of Stelter’s guests, Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawick. But Zurawick added that CNN and other outlets should stay away from partisan commentators altogether. If they want to learn what’s going on inside the Trump campaign, he said, “let’s find out the old-fashioned way by reporting it, not paying weasels to tell you about it.”

Before Lewandowski’s hiring, CNN already had a pro-Trump commentator in its stable—Jeffrey Lord. And he told Stelter that he saw no difference between Lewandowski signing on with CNN, former George W. Bush consigliore Karl Rove going to work for Fox News, or former Bill Clinton apologist George Stephanopoulos being hired by ABC News.

Lord is right—or at least he would be right if it weren’t for the matter of what Lewandowski is legally free to say about his former boss. And you can roll any number of other hired guns into Lord’s critique. What do Democratic operatives Donna Brazile and Paul Begala add to our understanding when they appear on CNN? But such is the nature of political commentary on cable news, whose main imperative is to fill hour after hour as cheaply as possible. Yes, talking heads are cheap, even when they’re well-paid.

The sorry truth may be that CNN doesn’t want Lewandowski to criticize Trump even if he’s so inclined. During the 1990s Jeff Cohen, a left-wing media critic, got a tryout to fill the liberal seat on the late, unlamented Crossfire. Cohen didn’t get the job—and one of the reasons, he wrote in his 2006 book Cable News Confidential, was that he was unwilling to go along with a requirement that he defend Clinton come hell or high water.

No doubt Lewandowski will settle into his role without all that much additional controversy. Paul Fahri reported in the Washington Post on Monday that rumors of a revolt among CNN staffers had been greatly exaggerated. But something important has been lost, because CNN has gone beyond commentary, beyond partisanship, beyond the mindless recitation of talking points. With Lewandowski, we have no way of knowing whether he’s telling us what he really thinks or if he’s protecting the settlement he signed on his way out of Trump Tower.

That may not seem like much in a media environment in which we seem to hit a new low every week. But it’s one more reason why public distrust of the media is so widespread—and why it deserves to be.

Lewandowski can’t tell CNN viewers what he really thinks

Corey Lewandowski says hello to reporter Michelle Fields earlier this year.
Corey Lewandowski gives an affectionate shove to reporter Michelle Fields earlier this year.

If CNN wants to hire Donald Trump’s thuggish ex-goon, Corey Lewandowski, as a commentator, well, let’s just say that I would expect nothing less. But I’m genuinely appalled that CNN would bring him aboard knowing that Lewandowski is legally bound not to say what he’s really thinking.

CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who’s doing a great job covering his employer’s ethical lapse, writes:

There are also swirling questions about whether Lewandowski is still bound to Trump somehow.

Like other Trump employees, he signed a non-disclosure agreement that ensures he will not share confidential information.

The agreement likely included a “non-disparagement clause,” impeding his ability to criticize Trump publicly.

I could almost live with the non-disclosure agreement. That’s not much different from a reporter’s protecting a confidential source. But a “non-disparagement clause”? Seriously? If Stelter has that right, then it means Lewandowski can’t offer his honest opinion on anything to do with Trump. When the next Trump outrage takes place and Lewandowski says it’s just peachy, we won’t have any idea whether he means it or not.

CNN should walk away from this colossal blunder, but of course it won’t.

Why Brian Williams’ return will be a disaster for NBC News

Brian Williams
Brian Williams

I really don’t understand why the folks at NBC News think serial fabricator Brian Williams can be rehabilitated. CNN’s Brian Stelter reports that Williams’ second act could be announced as early as today.

Yes, Williams is receiving a significant demotion — he’s supposedly being shipped off to MSNBC, which had a nice run as the liberal alternative to Fox News before plunging into unwatched obscurity the past couple of years. But given that NBC News major domo Andrew Lack is reportedly seeking to revive MSNBC with an injection of actual news, how can a guy who set fire to his own credibility be part of that? As Jay Rosen put it on Twitter: “NBC has to explain how he’s lost the credibility to anchor the nightly news but still has the cred to do the news on MSNBC.”

Remember, we’re not just talking about Williams’ lies regarding his helicopter ride in Iraq. There have been multiple instances in which he overstated the facts or just made stuff up. The New York Times reports:

Almost immediately after the controversy erupted, NBC opened an investigation into Mr. Williams, led by Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer for investigations. Over the last several months it uncovered 10 to 12 instances in which he was thought to have exaggerated or fabricated accounts of his reporting, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

And just wait until one of Williams’ anonymous enemies posts a “closely held” clip reel on YouTube that is said to document his worst moments. The Washington Post has this to say:

The video, produced by the team of NBC journalists assigned to review Williams’s statements in media appearances, makes a vivid case against the anchor, according to people familiar with it, isolating a number of questionable statements Williams has made.

Professional cynic Michael Wolff told old friend Mark Leibovich recently that NBC never should have abandoned Williams in the first place. Rather, he said, the network’s executives should have done their best Roger Ailes imitation and defended him as aggressively as Fox News has defended its own business interests.

But this is stupidity masquerading as sagacity. NBC News is not the Fox News Channel. Fox’s product is right-wing talk. NBC News’ purported product is news, served up truthfully. In that market, Williams’ value plunged to zero or close to it within days of his exposure last winter. (The next person who says he would rather see Williams back in the anchor chair rather than Lester Holt will be the first.) I suspect Wolff knows that, but the man does enjoy being provocative.

As for Williams, he needs to leave journalism. And it’s not up to NBC to help him figure out how.

Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

An entertaining look at the New York Times

David Carr torments a flack at Tribune Co.

At long last, I got to see “Page One: Inside the New York Times” at a screening last night at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. It’s a terrifically entertaining look at the culture inside the Times newsroom, focusing on the media desk’s coverage of the newspaper meltdown of 2009 and ’10. I brought a couple of students with me, and they were pretty enthusiastic about it as we were driving back to Northeastern.

As you have no doubt heard, the stars are columnist David Carr and reporter Brian Stelter, two people whose talents, though formidable, pale in comparison to their inhuman productivity. Carr easily slips into the role of Carr, a late-middle-aged reformed drug addict who genially F-bombs his way through interviews and public appearances, building up to his monumental takedown of Tribune Co. and its abusive owner, Sam Zell. Stelter, young and earnest, is the perfect counterpoint. (I know both of them slightly, Carr better than Stelter.)

Director Andrew Rossi and Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones kicked it around afterwards.

An obsessive media junkie probably won’t learn much, but I really enjoyed being immersed in Timesland for 90 minutes. Quibbles? As a friend observed, the documentary was heavily tilted toward men, which seems odd given that before it ends, we see the executive editor’s baton being passed from Bill Keller to Jill Abramson.

And though it was unavoidable, the sense of panic that pervaded the business when the film was being shot has abated to at least some degree. We’re hardly out of the woods. It seems that every day, we hear about cost-cutting and layoffs. But the notion that was prevalent a year or two ago, that the entire newspaper business was in its death throes, now appears to have been exaggerated. If “Page One” were shot today, I suspect it would be more optimistic.

More on Olbermann, Greenwald and Stelter

Glenn Greenwald has posted a statement from MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann as well as his own withering response regarding the cease-fire between MSNBC and Fox News. Here’s what Olbermann told Greenwald:

I honor Mr. Greenwald’s insight into the coverage of GE/NewsCorp talks, and have found nothing materially factually inaccurate about it. Fox and NewsCorp have continued a strategy of threat and blackmail by Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly since at least 2004. But no matter what might have been reported by others besides Mr. Greenwald, and no matter what might have been thought around this industry, there’s no “deal.” I would never consent, and, fortunately, MSNBC and NBC News would never ask me to.

Greenwald then writes:

I certainly believe that Olbermann is telling the truth when he says he was never a party to any deal and that nobody at GE or MSNBC asked him to consent. That’s because GE executives didn’t care in the least if Olbermann consented and didn’t need his consent. They weren’t requesting that Olbermann agree to anything, and nobody — including the NYT’s [Brian] Stelter — ever claimed that Olbermann had agreed to any deal. What actually happened is exactly what I wrote: GE executives issued an order that Olbermann must refrain from criticizing O’Reilly, and Olbermann complied with that edict. That is why he stopped mentioning O’Reilly as of June 1.

Once the NYT exposed this deal between GE and News Corp., MSNBC executives allowed Olbermann to attack O’Reilly last night because neither Olbermann nor MSNBC could afford to have it appear that their top journalist was being muzzled by GE.

Greenwald has some useful links, too, so please read the whole thing. And yes, Olbermann owes Stelter an on-air apology.

A cheap shot from Keith Olbermann

Keith Olbermann issued his declaration of independence last night. But in doing so, he smeared New York Times reporter Brian Stelter (photo), whose account of a peace settlement between Olbermann’s employer, MSNBC, and his nemesis Bill O’Reilly’s employer, Fox News, had created the need for Olbermann to renew his feud with O’Reilly in the first place.

Stelter reported last Friday that executives at both networks had moved to stop the on-air sniping between the two hosts. “Bill-O the Clown,” Olbermann’s pet nickname for O’Reilly, was frequently featured in his “Worst Persons in the World” segment. O’Reilly, for his part, had started taking aim at the corporate agenda of MSNBC’s owner, General Electric.

Although Stelter, not surprisingly, was forced to rely quite a bit on unnamed sources, he had an on-the-record comment from GE spokesman Gary Sheffer, who confirmed that a deal had been cut: “We all recognize that a certain level of civility needed to be introduced into the public discussion. We’re happy that has happened.”

Stelter also included a quote from Olbermann: “I am party to no deal.”

Seems pretty well nailed-down. Yet Olbermann, on last night’s “Countdown,” designated Stelter as his number-three villain in the “Worst Persons” segment, with O’Reilly coming in at number two. Among other things, Olbermann said:

Problem, Mr. Stelter asks me at least twice last week if there was such a deal, and I told him, on and off the record, there was not. And told him I rather obviously would have to be a party to such a deal. And I told him that not only wasn’t I, but I had not even been asked to be by my bosses. And he printed it anyway.

This is intellectually dishonest, as it implies that Stelter deliberately did not use Olbermann’s quote because it didn’t fit with what he wanted to write. In fact, Stelter did use it, and he placed it in context. It’s very clear from Stelter’s story that the deal had been cut by higher-ups, and that Olbermann might or might not go along.

Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch came in at number one for trying to muzzle O’Reilly. Hmmm … doesn’t that confirm that Stelter got it right?

Glenn Greenwald, who’s been blogging away at Salon ever since the Stelter story came out, criticized his ideological soulmate Olbermann last night, writing on Twitter, “Really surprised by the Olbermann denial – there’s lots and lots of evidence that the NYT’s description about what GE did is 100% accurate.”

Stelter himself took it in good humor after seeing his photo plastered on the “Worst Persons” segment. “Tonight: a reminder to take a new head shot,” he wrote on Twitter.

All in all, not a good moment for Olbermann. He may have reclaimed his independence. But he did so at the expense of sliming a journalist who’d broken an important, unflattering story about collusion by media moguls. At the very least, Olbermann ought to award himself the bronze.

Photo from Stelter’s Twitter feed.