CNN’s Sarah Isgur story keeps shifting

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Yesterday, I wrote for HuffPost about CNN hiring Republican political operative Sarah Isgur Flores as a political editor, explaining that it demonstrates that the network still hasn’t learned from its flawed “both-sides-are-equally-bad” coverage of the 2016 presidential race:

Cable news leaders — whose decisions help shape the contours of election coverage — are making some of the same sorts of mistakes they made last time.


For CNN, though, the appeal [of hiring Isgur] is simple: It “strongly suggests that the network’s big thinkers — including head honcho Jeff Zucker — are aiming for a kind of false fairness: a defensive, both-sides-are-equal kind of political coverage that inevitably fails to serve the voting public,” The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote last week.

CNN has consistently failed to grapple with its unique vulnerability to this form of false balance. Cable news networks traditionally hire a coterie of partisan contributors and turn them loose to discuss the issues of the day. This leaves viewers confused about where the truth may lie as a representative from one party denounces a person or policy while the other excuses it. The coverage favors stories about optics, scandal and the political horse race over policy. When someone like [President] Trump enters the fray, bringing with him unrestrained mendacity and bigotry, the system breaks down as his adherents defend the indefensible and their segments devolve into shoutfests.

Read the whole piece here.

CNN’s lack of transparency has been one of the more troubling aspects of this saga.

It’s not uncommon for media outlets to hire people with political backgrounds -- a fact Isgur’s supporters have sought to exploit in response to the turmoil her hiring caused.

But those hires almost always become contributors, analysts, or reporters -- positions in which their names are publicly affixed to their work in a way that allows the audience to judge the results.

But CNN has hired Isgur for a position that will take place at least in part behind the scenes, making it impossible for its viewers to know exactly how she’s influencing the network’s coverage.

And rather than publicly addressing the controversy, CNN executives have allowed contradictory details about the contours of her role to drip out over the last week. Meanwhile, other outlets reporting on her job have mostly included descriptions that are sourced to anonymous CNN spokespersons and do not include direct quotes, suggesting the PR representatives had requested to speak on background.

While initial reports suggested that Isgur would be playing a senior role in helping to oversee the network’s politics coverage, CNN has subsequently sought to dispute that description. The network’s president reportedly told staffers that she would be “coordinating coverage” rather than “making decisions about” it. The exact distinction between those two descriptions is unclear.

It’s also unclear whether CNN’s spokespeople botched their initial explanations of Isgur’s role, whether reporters misunderstood their descriptions, or whether CNN has been scaling back her responsibilities in response to criticism.

The result has been widespread confusion within and outside the network.

Here’s a timeline of how the story of what Isgur will be doing at CNN has developed.

February 19

Politico broke the news that CNN has hired Isgur, reporting that as a political editor, “she will coordinate political coverage for the 2020 campaign.” The story was co-bylined by Eliana Johnson, who is also a CNN analyst, and sourced to “a CNN official” who told CNN that Isgur “will not play a role in covering” the Department of Justice, where she previously worked as a spokesperson, and “will occasionally appear on air analyzing politics.”

Later that day, The Daily Beast reported that a CNN spokesperson had confirmed to the outlet “that the network has hired Republican political adviser Sarah Isgur as the politics editor helming CNN’s 2020 coverage.” The article, which additionally detailed criticism of the hire from within CNN, also provided some context about her role, writing that according to a CNN spokesperson, she “will guide TV and digital coverage of the 2020 election.”

CNN media reporter Brian Stelter reported in his nightly newsletter that “CNN PR confirmed that she would report to political director David Chalian but otherwise declined to comment.” He added that his “understanding” is that Isgur “will be joining a group of several political editors who coordinate coverage. This entails managing teams in the field, making decisions about how to frame the day's biggest campaign stories, etcetera.” He also reported on CNN journalists critiquing the hire as well as on CNN executives defending her appointment. also reported on the matter, and its piece appears to include the only actual quote from a CNN spokesperson on the topic:

On Tuesday evening, a CNN spokesperson emailed Vox and said they “just wanted to be super clear – Sarah is not leading, overseeing, or running political coverage.”

“She is helping to coordinate coverage across TV and Digital – she is one of several editors,” the spokesperson added, going on to characterize Isgur’s role as making sure that stories are featured on the right shows and articles get posted online at the right time.

February 20

The Daily Beast reported that CNN has assured the Democratic National Committee that Isgur “will not be involved in the debates that the channel hosts and moderates for the Democratic primary.” The story included quotes to that effect from “a senior DNC aide.”

The Daily Beast and Stelter’s newsletter both reported on a memo defending the hire that was sent to CNN’s politics team from Washington bureau chief Sam Feist, Newsgathering Vice President Virginia Mosley, and Political Director David Chalian. Praising her credentials, the trio wrote: “Sarah will spend the first few months here getting to know our systems and our people. Eventually we plan to have her play a coordinating role in our daily political coverage – helping to organize and communicate between newsgathering, digital, and television.”

February 22

The Wall Street Journal reported that “people familiar with the situation” say that during CNN’s daily editorial conference call that day, network President Jeff Zucker “emphasized” that Isgur “wouldn’t be making decisions about political coverage” and would be reporting to Chalian, who would be directing 2020 coverage. Instead, Zucker reportedly said Isgur’s “primary duties would include coordinating coverage for the Washington bureau.” The Journal further reported:

Her responsibilities will include making sure stories are showcased on the correct shows and scheduling Ms. Isgur isn’t running CNN’s coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign, according to a company spokeswoman. Her responsibilities will include making sure stories are showcased on the correct shows and scheduling the publication of digital stories.

It’s unclear exactly how one could coordinate coverage without making decisions about what is covered, or how CNN can argue that “making sure stories are showcased on the correct shows” doesn’t involve such editorial decision-making.

February 24

To CNN’s credit, its media criticism show Reliable Sources covered the controversy. To its discredit, no CNN executive appeared to discuss the story. Instead, guest host John Avlon and conservative CNN host S.E. Cupp had to defend the hire (with Avlon citing his own past career as speechwriter for former New York City Mayor and current Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani), while NPR’s David Folkenflik criticized it.

February 26

The Daily Beast reported that CNN officials had informed the Democratic National Committee that Isgur “will have no editorial decision-making control over the network’s coverage of the 2020 elections,” according to “a Democratic official familiar with those conversations.”