As the Columbia Journalism Review reported this week, reporters in the CNN newsroom were “demoralized,” “up in arms,” “baffled,” and “really, really worried.” Their panic was understandable. After all, who joins the mainstream media expecting to work alongside a conservative Republican, let alone possibly having to “take direction on stories” from one?
CNN’s hiring of Sarah Flores, a former Republican campaign operative and, most recently, a spokesperson for the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions and a supporter of the Trump administration (after opposing him during the GOP primaries when she worked for Carly Fiorina), was widely denounced by many journalists as a shocking lowering of standards. But what those criticizing Flores and her new employers seem to be missing is that their outrage says more about the overwhelming liberal bias at networks not named Fox than it does about her potential shortcomings.
The argument of those demoralized, baffled, and worried journalists is that someone who has criticized liberal bias at CNN and other media outlets, let alone defended the Trump Justice Department, can’t possibly cover Trump or any issue fairly. They not only see Flores as biased but view her hiring as an insult to them and a bending of the knee to an administration that most of them consider not merely wrong but beyond the pale.
There are two elements behind the backlash against Flores and CNN. One is a belief that diversity is required in all things except politics. The other is something that actually transcends normal liberal media bias: It’s the conviction on the part of many in the press — including a number of CNN’s on-air personalities — that their coverage of Trump should take the form of a conflict, in which even the pretense of objectivity can be discarded in order to refute and defeat a man whose presence in the White House they consider to be an affront to all they hold dear.
The problem with the carping about the Flores hire starts with the obvious fact that she is far from the first former political operative to be hired for a responsible job at a major network. Leaving aside the large number of politicos — both Republicans and Democrats — who have contracts as talking-head commentators, others have taken on roles that are supposed to be staffed by those without obvious ties to either party.
The list of those who have crossed the great divide between politics and journalism is long and includes some of the most well known people in the business. Obvious examples include George Stephanopoulos, who went from being the Clinton White House director of communications to the heir to journalism icon David Brinkley’s spot as the host of ABC’s Sunday-morning news show.
Jake Tapper, whom many consider as fair-minded a reporter as can be found in Washington, was a press secretary for a Democratic congresswoman and, briefly, a flack for a gun-control group before embarking on a successful career that now finds him at CNN.
Going back further, Tim Russert was an aide to Democrats such as Mario Cuomo and Daniel Patrick Moynihan before becoming the host of NBC’s Meet the Press and the face of its news operation.
So in that sense, the anger about Flores’s hiring is clearly an example of journalists who believe in diversity in hiring when it comes to race and ethnic background but not political views. But her critics counter by saying that there is a clear difference between on-air personalities such as Stephanopoulos, Russert, and Tapper, whose bias can be easily detected by viewers, and someone such as Flores, who will, for the most part, work behind the scenes. Yet while it’s true that her decisions will not be transparent, it’s also the case that working journalists are overwhelmingly registered Democrats and hold liberal political views.
Indeed, the problem with most outlets is not so much a matter of journalists’ deliberately putting their fingers on the scale in order to tell stories from a liberal frame of reference as it is a groupthink mentality in which many of them simply consider their existing biases to be indistinguishable from the objective truth.
When they are called to account for bias, whether by angry readers or by viewers, publishers, or public officials, the usual reaction is not soul-searching — even when obvious errors are pointed out. To the contrary, the liberal journalism fraternity perceives accountability as a threat, closes ranks, and speaks as if the barbarians were attempting to overturn the altars of press freedom.
Trump is guilty of exaggerations and fabrications that ought to render him ineligible for the role of press critic. He also uses language — such as “enemies of the people” — that sounds more Stalinist than conservative and thereby lends credibility to those who speak as if he were about to abrogate the First Amendment.
But Trump’s flaws notwithstanding, he has become the flashpoint for a new and more brazen type of bias than had previously been encountered by conservatives. As a host of media personalities and reporters have admitted, they think Trump is so bad that the old rules — which obligated them to at least maintain a pretense of objectivity and fairness when covering Republicans — can be abandoned and replaced with open partisanship. That is the only way to explain, to seize upon just one of many examples, the antics of CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta as he engages in ideological debates with the people he’s supposed to be covering rather than supplying straight news reporting. The same provides the explanation for much of the New York Times’s news coverage of Trump, as former editor Jill Abramson, herself a staunch liberal, noted in her new memoir.
If CNN staffers fear the inclusion of someone such as Flores with a history of calling out press bias (including rightly denouncing CNN’s Chris Cuomo as a dispenser of “Planned Parenthood propaganda”), it’s not just because it will disrupt their traditional liberal groupthink. It’s also because her presence in the room while editorial decisions are being made will put a damper on their desire to wage open war on the administration.
The irony here is that if journalists truly want to answer Trump’s abusive claims that all negative coverage of him is “fake news,” the best remedy would be to hire a lot more people like Sarah Flores. When diversity in the newsroom is understood to mean that conservative-oriented writers, editors, and on-air personalities are as welcome as liberals, then it will be easier to refute their critics. By denouncing Flores’s intrusion into their club, they are only making Trump’s arguments — and those of other press critics — all the more persuasive.