On Tuesday morning, Politico reported that CNN is hiring Sarah Isgur, a former Department of Justice spokeswoman, as a political editor in charge of coordinating coverage of the 2020 campaign.
Initially caught off guard by Politico’s scoop, CNN refrained from addressing the hire, leaving executives to anonymously speak with reporters to incrementally release tidbits of the network’s posture. One executive told CNN’s Brian Stelter that “The notion that she isn’t qualified for this role is absurd.”
“She is one of more than a dozen people who will be helping coordinate our political coverage,” the source said, adding that “She is highly qualified to do so.”
Stelter also reported that CNN executives had described Isgur as “an exceptional person whose political experience will improve CNN’s coverage,” yet at the same time, a CNN spokesperson told Vox that the network wanted to be “super clear” and clarify that “Sarah is not leading, overseeing, or running political coverage.”
Instead, the spokesperson said Isgur’s role would be to “coordinate coverage across TV and Digital,” creating more confusion as to what exactly Isgur would have influence over.
A seasoned GOP operative, Isgur worked for the Republican National Committee and on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign before joining Carly Fiorina’s 2016 presidential campaign as deputy campaign manager. Between February 2017 and November 2018, Isgur was the DOJ’s top spokeswoman and subsequently served as senior counsel to outgoing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein until this month.
A source from within CNN told Politico that Isgur would not oversee any coverage of the DOJ, but the clarification proved inadequate in quelling concerns over Isgur’s appointment as several journalists and media critics blasted CNN for choosing someone who lacked any sort of journalistic experience for an editorial position.
I see plenty of people (willfully) misreading this as "people are mad a conservative got hired." No. People are mad that a partisan operative with zero journalistic experience got a high-ranking editorial job overseeing the assign/editing of reporting. https://t.co/OkAw6XXR7f
— Andrew Kirell (@AndrewKirell) February 20, 2019
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan called the hire “terrible,” adding that in light of President Trump’s unrelenting and endangering attacks on the media and specifically CNN itself, choosing Isgur was even more “incomprehensible — and insulting.”
In an interview with Sullivan, Columbia University journalism professor Bill Grueskin said that Isgur’s lack of journalistic experience caused him to ask “if Jeff Zucker would ever have brain surgery performed by a dentist.”
And the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop wrote that “The revolving door is not new, but on this occasion, it spun so fast it almost came off its hinges.”
Internally, CNN staffers, reporters and editors also expressed their confusion and frustration with the hire.
One editorial staffer told The Daily Beast that it had been “extremely demoralizing for everyone here.” Another reporter told Brian Stelter that Isgur’s hiring felt “like a disaster.”
“I’m really, really worried about this, and concerned about the ethical implications of taking direction on stories from someone I covered when she was an operative in 2016 and who pledged loyalty to one of the candidates in the 2020 race,” the reporter said, referring to an early 2017 incident in the Oval Office when Isgur was made to pledge her loyalty to Trump after repeatedly bashing him during the 2016 Republican primary election.
Echoing the uncertainty around Isgur’s role as a political editor, another staffer told Stelter: “I’m sure she’s a wonderful person, but no one knows what she’ll be doing.”
Rounding out analysis of the fiasco in an op-ed entitled “CNN has really done it now,” the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple astutely observed how defending Isgur’s hiring had put CNN in an uncomfortably odd position to simultaneously praise her political and legal insights and assure viewers that the ex-DOJ spokeswoman would not be “directing or overseeing political coverage.”
“Mind you: When news organizations announce a fabulous new hire, they typically cite all the things this new person will be doing, not their bureaucratic straitjackets,” Wemple wrote.