Use of campaign surrogates puts CNN on the defensive

In this July 25 photo, Donna Brazile appears on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

NEW YORK (AP) — At a time CNN should be riding high, the network is facing the biggest threat to its reputation since Jeff Zucker took over as top executive because of its liberal use of campaign surrogates like Donna Brazile and Corey Lewandowski.

CNN announced on Monday that Brazile, the acting head of the Democratic National Committee, had quit as a contributor two weeks ago. Brazile, who had been suspended at CNN upon taking the DNC job this summer, was exposed in documents released by WikiLeaks as feeding Hillary Clinton’s campaign questions in advance of primary debates.

The presence of Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, has also raised questions about whether political insiders hired as contributors are more loyal to the politicians they once worked for than a network and its viewers.

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Besides, said a former CNN chief executive, it makes for lousy television.

“It isn’t that it’s bad journalism,” said Jonathan Klein, CNN’s U.S. president from 2004 to 2010. “It’s that it isn’t journalism at all. It’s lazy.”

Buoyed by the presidential campaign, CNN is enjoying some of its best ratings in years, certainly since Zucker took over in late 2012. October was CNN’s most-watched month since 2005, and it was the first time in 15 years that the network had beaten Fox News Channel all day among the 25-to-54 demographic that it bases advertising sales upon.

Zucker’s turnaround strategy, which involves exhaustive coverage of the day’s top story, an expansion in digital news and investment in documentary-style programming for the slow times, has been a business success.

But its campaign season use of well-connected operatives has led to a headache CNN clearly wishes would go away. Zucker wouldn’t publicly discuss the issue on Wednesday, a spokeswoman said.

Republicans complain that Brazile’s actions tipped the scale in favor of Clinton in her competition with Bernie Sanders. CNN has said that Brazile did not get debate questions from the network. Debate partner Roland Martin of TV One is the suspected source of one question about the death penalty. The network suggested Brazile learned on her own that a woman from Flint, Michigan, would ask about the city’s water supply.

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The issue surrounding Lewandowski and other Trump surrogates like Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany are different. Lewandowski’s hiring was controversial from the start, even more so when it was learned that he was continuing to receive severance payments from the campaign. That has since ended.

Surrogates provide such loyal, predictable support of their candidate that appearances are often non-illuminating and combative. There are times that CNN anchors appear weary conducting interviews when the surrogate seems more interested in presenting talking points than answering questions.

One Lewandowski appearance Tuesday night, where he sparred with Atlantic editor Peter Beinart over polls, became so heated that Beinart raised the question of loyalty.

“Don’t give me this nonsense, OK?” Beinart said at one point. “Corey, listen. I’m not getting paid by one of the candidates, OK?”

“Neither am I,” Lewandowski shot back. “You know what? And I think you couldn’t get paid by one of the candidates because you have no talent to get paid by one of the candidates.”

Political segments where participants are not there to tell the truth alienates viewers, Klein said. The time could be better spent with actual reporting or substantive policy debate with experts, he said.

“Young viewers have no patience at all,” he said. “They don’t bother tuning in at all because they know it’s a joke.”

Zucker has said that it’s important to have people on CNN’s air who support the Republican nominee. In some respects, the use of surrogates — and CNN is not alone in using them — are a byproduct of Zucker’s philosophy to stay on big stories to the virtual exclusion of anything else. With 24 hours a day to fill in an election campaign, it means CNN often offers news talk as much as news coverage.

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Critics have said CNN needs more transparency on the issue. It seemed odd that CNN publicly announced Brazile’s resignation two weeks after it happened, and only upon the second WikiLeaks release. Political candidates and debate partners also need assurances of fairness, wrote Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, a persistent critic of the practice.

CNN has built a formidable media reporting team recently; its influential “Reliable Sources” daily newsletter had three links on the topic Tuesday. Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” broadcast will be closely watched Sunday to see how it deals with the issue.

Zucker, in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter last week, said that CNN will continue to employ a number of political commentators. It probably won’t be at the same level, but CNN will begin to assess it after the election, he said.

“If they were OK with Corey Lewandowski, it’s hard to see what would make them move off the practice,” said Jay Rosen, a New York University professor and author of the “PressThink” blog. “I think they’re addicted, and won’t change.”

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