Yesterday, CNN announced that it had hired Corey Lewandowski, the former campaign manager of Donald Trump’s campaign who was fired on Monday. Based on what we already know, the hire presents an ethical nightmare for CNN. But there are still many unanswered questions about the hire that could make things worse.
Lewandowski was known during his tenure with the campaign as Trump’s anti-press enforcer, drawing criticism for physical altercations with at least two reporters (one of whom worked for CNN) as well as reportedly making “unwanted romantic advances” and “sexually suggestive and at times vulgar comments to -- and about -- female journalists.”
Here’s what we know -- and don’t know -- about the Lewandowski hire:
Lewandowski has a non-disclosure agreement. During Lewandowski’s first appearance on CNN as a contributor, host Erin Burnett asked him if he had signed a nondisclosure agreement when he worked for the Trump campaign. He replied that he had.
He won’t say if he has a non-disparagement agreement. Burnett also noted that CNN had previously obtained a copy of the agreement that Trump campaign staff signed and that it included language stating that “during the term of your service and at all times thereafter, you hereby promise and agree not to demean or disparage publicly the company, Mr. Trump, any Trump company, any family member or any family member company.” Lewandowski refused to directly answer Burnett’s question as to whether his agreement included such a clause.
At least one outlet decided not to make an offer to Lewandowski over ethical concerns. CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that according to a source at MSNBC, the network’s executives had also met with Lewandowski to discuss hiring him as a contributor but ultimately decided against making an offer, “mainly due to ethical concerns.”
Journalists across the political spectrum hate this hire. After Politico broke the news, reporters and pundits from the left, right, and center condemned CNN for hiring Lewandowski. They highlighted his past history with journalists, particularly female ones, and questioned the ethics of the hire.
Including at CNN. Stelter reported that Lewandowski’s hiring was “highly controversial, even within the newsroom, in part because he has a reputation for being hostile toward journalists.” Politico’s Hadas Gold similarly reported, “Some CNN staffers were privately grumbling on Thursday about Lewandowski's hiring, especially in light of how he has treated journalists.” The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove reported that CNN staffers are “furious with” CNN president Jeff Zucker.
Media critics agree. In the words of former CNN bureau chief Frank Sesno, who now directs George Washington University’s media and public affairs department, “Lewandowski’s credibility becomes CNN’s credibility. If he peddles talking points and lies, then CNN will be peddling talking points and lies—to their own peril.”
We don’t know:
Whether Lewandowski actually has a non-disparagement agreement. Can Lewandowski criticize Trump, his family members, or his company without violating the terms of his contract with the presumptive GOP nominee? Based on Lewandowski’s responses to questions about the campaign, it sure seems like the answer is no. But we don’t know for sure.
Whether CNN knows if Lewandowski has a non-disparagement agreement. It seems unbelievable that CNN’s executives would have hired Lewandowski without knowing the terms of his contract with the Trump campaign. But if they do know about it, they haven’t passed that information on to their reporters, who have been forced to ask Lewandowski about it and watch him evade the question.
Whether CNN’s executives considered Lewandowski’s behavior toward journalists, particularly women, in the hiring process. Does the network care that the person they have hired to do commentary reportedly physically pushed one of their own producers when he tried to ask Trump a question? Did they take into account his reported behavior with female journalists when they were considering hiring him? As Michelle Fields, who was manhandled by Lewandowski, put it, “My heart goes out to all his new female coworkers who will have to deal with him daily. I imagine CNN HR will be busy this year.”
What role Trump played in Lewandowski’s hiring. A Deadline source claims that “Trump was involved in brokering the deal” between Lewandowski and CNN. The network previously hired Jeffrey Lord as a contributor on Trump’s recommendation, Lord said.
Who is paying for the lawsuit against Trump and Lewandowski. GOP operative Cheri Jacobus is currently suing Trump and Lewandowski together in a $4 million defamation suit. If Trump is funding the defense in whole, that would represent a massive conflict of interest for Lewandowski.
What Lewandowski offers CNN that its current Trump backers don’t. CNN already employs two commentators who were hired specifically because they support Trump: Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany. If Lewandowski can’t tell CNN’s audience what he saw while running Trump’s campaign, and can’t provide candid criticism of the candidate without violating a contract, what does he offer the network other than another voice pushing canned talking points?