In a time when news viewers are splintering around partisan leanings, CNN is proving to be a uniter, not a divider: people from both sides of the political aisle are eager to criticize its business decisions and news coverage.
The one-time plain vanilla network can’t win for losing as it tries to achieve an elusive balance. CNN raised eyebrows Tuesday after details leaked about its hire of Sarah Isgur Flores, a longtime Republican press aide who most recently worked for former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The former Department of Justice spokeswoman is expected to become a political editor at CNN, one of several who reports to David Chalian, a VP and political director at CNN, and helps coordinate placement and coverage of emerging stories related to politics.
News of the hire, confirmed by a person familiar with the matter after a Politico report, was greeted skeptically by some media observers who were quick to make their disapproval known via social media. Critics pointed out that Isgur Flores has been openly critical of CNN’s coverage on occasion, and wondered why the network would put someone like that in a position of responsibility when its journalists and marketing materials have railed against the Trump administration labeling its reporting as “fake news” and its reporters as potential “enemies of the people.”
In a memo sent to staffers Wednesday morning, CNN Washington executives said Isgur Flores would start March 11 and “play a coordinating role in our daily political coverage — helping to organize and communicate between newsgathering, digital, and television. With two dozen candidates to cover, constant coordination is needed more than ever.” They added: “We’re thrilled that Sarah is coming to CNN. She brings a wealth of government, political, communications, and legal experience to our team.”
The decision should surprise no one who has logged time watching CNN since the run-up to the 2016 election. Executives have continued to hire a spate of conservative editors and analysts, both for on-camera work and behind-the-scenes reportage. White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins came to CNN from the Daily Caller, for example. Mia Love, a former Republican congresswoman from Utah, is now an on-air analyst. Sarah Westwood, another White House reporter, joined CNN from the Washington Examiner, known to have a conservative editorial stance.
The effort would seem to bolster CNN’s “both sides now” approach to the news. Liberals and conservatives get to weigh in on everything, often with CNN anchors like Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper pivoting to both sides again and again in their allotted time.
Isgur Flores’ hire is a departure, however, even by past standards. She has no journalism experience, and has spent time actively debunking CNN’s efforts, even referring to it as the “Clinton News Network,” a disparaging reference often associated with the network’s conservative critics.
Yet it is also part of a pattern. CNN has for several years sought to incorporate into its on-air mix people who have railed against its work. Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign operative, was made an analyst for a time. So was Trump campaign aide Jason Miller. Other conservative voices have included Ed Martin, Paris Dennard, and the controversial Jeffrey Lord. Many have been pushed from CNN after unsavory details of their private lives came to light or after making offensive remarks, as Lord was in August 2017 when he tweeted the Nazi salute “Sieg Heil!” in a swipe at a liberal activist.
CNN may spend so much time courting the right because the right sees it as being very left. CNN appeared to confirm this when it launched its “Facts First” marketing campaign in 2017. The popular interstitials subtly inveigh against those people who might try to make you believe an apple is a banana, and serves as a clever metaphor for President Trump, who has been shown to have made dozens of inaccurate statements during this time in office. Marketing research at the time indicated that CNN’s favorability rating among Democrats and independents had risen early on in the Trump era.
CNN’s efforts to ensure a both-sides balance in its news operations comes as one of its main rivals, MSNBC, has backed away from partisan positioning during a good chunk of its programming day. No one will find MSNBC primetime hosts Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, or Lawrence O’Donnell lobbing praise at President Trump or any of his various Cabinet members, but other programs on MSNBC’s daytime schedule play up guests who are deep experts in fields of law enforcement or national security instead of political affiliation.
The dynamic is one that bears watching. Comcast, the parent of MSNBC and NBC News (which has taken over huge swaths of MSNBC’s grid), has been working to expand its news operations around the globe. In May of 2017, NBC News acquired a 25% stake in Europe’s France-based Euronews for $30 million. Last year, Comcast outbid 21st Century Fox and Walt Disney to gain control of European satellite broadcaster Sky PLC, making it owner of Sky News. CNN has long been the dominant American news service abroad, but these new purchases could bring a new competitor to the fore.
In an age when news of global import seems to be constantly breaking, news viewers have become more vocal about their preferences. Fox News and MSNBC viewers are only too happy to talk about the latest Hannity or Maddow segment. But when a news outlet goes out of its way to ensure both sides of the divided body politic are represented in its ranks, it’s sure to generate twice as much second-guessing of its decisions.
Read the CNN memo to staffers about the hire of Sarah Isgur Flores below:
To the CNN Politics team:
You may have heard that Sarah Isgur will be joining CNN in the coming weeks as a Political Editor. We wish we had been able to share this news with you before it was reported in the press but as Washington is a town full of journalists, news like this sometimes gets out.
We’re thrilled that Sarah is coming to CNN. She brings a wealth of government, political, communications, and legal experience to our team.
Sarah will spend the first few months here getting to know our systems and our people. Eventually we plan to have her play a coordinating role in our daily political coverage – helping to organize and communicate between newsgathering, digital, and television. With two dozen candidates to cover, constant coordination is needed more than ever.
Sarah will report to David and work alongside Steve, Terence, and the digital politics team to make sure that all of our audiences get the most from our political reporting.
She starts March 11th. We look forward to introducing Sarah to all of you