From Campaign to Cable: Media Experts on Hiring Political Commentators

Roughly 3 days, 6 hours, and 42 minutes after his dismissal was first announced, former Donald Trump Presidential campaign manager Corey Lewandowski found himself on air as CNN’s newest political contributor.  

Some in the media were outraged; others were shocked that CNN would not only hire an outspoken critic of the press, but someone with a recent history of harassing and assaulting journalists.

The swift, bold hiring presented a number of complications, as media critics dissected implications of Lewandowski’s hiring. Some believed CNN trudged into murky ethical waters, as Lewandowski was still receiving severance pay by the Trump campaign at the time of his hiring, and his non-disclosure agreement prevented him from disparaging the candidate in any way on the air as noted by Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker. However, the network gained unfettered access to a powerful operative with insight into the Trump machine.

In the the 24-hour news cycle, the line between those who make the news and those who report it has become increasingly blurred. Political talking heads have been a mainstay of news programing since the days of CNN’s “Crossfire,” but Lewandowski’s hiring raised new questions about the requirements for political contributors.

“We’re paid for our opinions,” Margaret Hoover, a conservative political analyst for CNN, told MediaFile. “The point is to have insight and analysis of news and events from people who have been there, from people who have lived it.”

To give audiences insight into the complicated inner workings of politics“you need people who have run a fundraising office, or have worked in the West Wing,” Hoover said. Or, in Lewandowski’s case, you need someone who has run a campaign during one of the most news-generating election cycles to date.

“It’s not unlike having a retired general on to discuss battle strategy,” says former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno. “Analysts should be positioned to incorporate their own expertise and familiarity on a given subject.”

In theory, there are certain requirements that contributors must meet. Relevant experience is a major factor for producers deciding who to call. In CNN’s case, Lewandowski was undoubtedly relevant to discussion on the 2016 Presidential election, as he had spent the last year steering an outsider candidate to become the Republican nominee, and was one of only a handful of individuals who could speak with authority on the mind of Donald Trump.

“It was a calculated decision to get insight into the Trump campaign,” said Hoover of the Lewandowski hiring. “[CNN] now has an in-house guy. With Corey, they’re always going to be able to provide the Trump position and achieve a balanced segment.”

Another factor producers, bookers, and executives consider is presentation. Contributors must articulately defend their position under the stress of a live broadcast: a studio setting, strict time guidelines, and often, an entire panel of opposing voices.

For CNN, Lewandowski seemed to check this box. His time in the political limelight with the Trump campaign had allowed him to perfect his on-air style. He could hold his own against more seasoned contributors.

However, Lewandowski’s commentary has not been without controversy. From his very first appearance on CNN, Lewandowski has had a handful of high tension moments with fellow panelists.

Yet, this tension was to be expected with hiring Lewandowski. In fact, it was part of his appeal. During his time with Trump, the campaign manager made headlines of his own with his controversial behavior, such as the incident with Michelle Fields, working then for Breitbart, in Florida. He had made a name for himself and injected his persona into the public sphere. This visibility in the public “is probably the first most important factor that producers think about,” said Sesno, who is now the Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University..

Highly recognizable names also expand CNN’s network of potential voices. Take the case of Donna Brazile, who for many years, had been a regular CNN contributor. Her experience in the Democratic party, including with national campaigns, gave the network valuable insight and connection to the organization, especially for competitive election coverage. When she was appointed the Interim Chair of the DNC earlier this summer, her contract with CNN was temporarily suspended. While Brazile would not officially appear on CNN as a contributor, her relationship with the network was not entirely precluded.

“She’s been forming relationships at CNN for a while now,” remarked Sesno on Brazile. “When CNN needs someone to go on air, now they have someone they can call up.” Even if Brazile could not appear on the network, she did have the power to ensure that CNN could gain access to the analysis they needed.

According to Sesno, having notable figures like Brazile helps to project the network into the stratosphere of elite newsmakers, and “the network becomes more deeply sourced, and gains access to a more powerful, influential place.”

Ultimately, however, the practice of hiring political contributors is fairly subjective. “It’s a lot less of a science,” Hoover commented. “You have a million spots to fill. You’re constantly looking for the next person.”

Of course, finding someone to fit a network’s guidelines may not always mean creating a perfect commentator. While Lewandowski may provide unparalleled insight into the Trump campaign for now, only time will tell if CNN’s hiring decision will result in the next great pundit or a broadcast one-hit wonder. “You don’t serve your audience to just put on an apologist,” commented Sesno.

“If you’re going to be an analyst you have to acknowledge strengths and weakness on both sides… You should acknowledge the issue. Or, you should be fired.”

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