I don’t care that Corey Lewandowski is a partisan hack. And though it bothers me that he was Donald Trump’s thuggish enforcer, I don’t think it disqualifies him from sitting in front of a TV camera and extolling Trump’s alleged virtues.
But it does bother me—a lot—that CNN would give a platform to Lewandowski even though he may not be legally free to voice his honest opinion. That’s the least the network should get for the $500,000 it is reportedly paying him.
To recap briefly: Trump fired Lewandowski as his campaign manager a week ago Monday. Just two days later Lewandowski signed on with CNN to provide pro-Trump commentary. The hiring has been greeted with a considerable amount of outrage because of Lewandowski’s role in herding reporters into pens, banning certain journalists as well as entire news organizations from Trump events, and grabbing the arm of a female reporter hard enough that he was charged with assault. (The charge was later dropped.)
The real mind-bender, though, is that Lewandowski—who remains a true believer in Trump despite the firing—signed a non-disclosure agreement when he left the campaign. Even worse, he may also have signed a non-disparagement agreement. On the face of it, that would seem to mean there exists a legal document somewhere that says Lewandowski cannot criticize Trump. Now, maybe Lewandowski wouldn’t anyway. But there is an enormous difference between won’t and can’t. (We talked about the Lewandowski matter last week on WGBH-TV’s Beat the Press.)
Several of CNN’s on-air journalists have come up huge in holding their network to account. Last week Erin Burnett asked Lewandowski directly whether he had signed a non-disparagement agreement. Lewandowski did not answer the question. “Let me tell you who I am,” he said. “I am a guy who calls balls and strikes, I am going to tell it like it is.”
CNN media reporter Brian Stelter wrote about the situation last week and devoted a nine-minute-plus segment to it Sunday on Reliable Sources. Stelter, like Burnett, deserves credit for focusing on what exactly Lewandowski may have signed when he left the Trump campaign.
Should CNN run a disclosure every time Lewandowski opens his mouth? Yes, replied one of Stelter’s guests, Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawick. But Zurawick added that CNN and other outlets should stay away from partisan commentators altogether. If they want to learn what’s going on inside the Trump campaign, he said, “let’s find out the old-fashioned way by reporting it, not paying weasels to tell you about it.”
Before Lewandowski’s hiring, CNN already had a pro-Trump commentator in its stable—Jeffrey Lord. And he told Stelter that he saw no difference between Lewandowski signing on with CNN, former George W. Bush consigliore Karl Rove going to work for Fox News, or former Bill Clinton apologist George Stephanopoulos being hired by ABC News.
Lord is right—or at least he would be right if it weren’t for the matter of what Lewandowski is legally free to say about his former boss. And you can roll any number of other hired guns into Lord’s critique. What do Democratic operatives Donna Brazile and Paul Begala add to our understanding when they appear on CNN? But such is the nature of political commentary on cable news, whose main imperative is to fill hour after hour as cheaply as possible. Yes, talking heads are cheap, even when they’re well-paid.
The sorry truth may be that CNN doesn’t want Lewandowski to criticize Trump even if he’s so inclined. During the 1990s Jeff Cohen, a left-wing media critic, got a tryout to fill the liberal seat on the late, unlamented Crossfire. Cohen didn’t get the job—and one of the reasons, he wrote in his 2006 book Cable News Confidential, was that he was unwilling to go along with a requirement that he defend Clinton come hell or high water.
No doubt Lewandowski will settle into his role without all that much additional controversy. Paul Fahri reported in the Washington Post on Monday that rumors of a revolt among CNN staffers had been greatly exaggerated. But something important has been lost, because CNN has gone beyond commentary, beyond partisanship, beyond the mindless recitation of talking points. With Lewandowski, we have no way of knowing whether he’s telling us what he really thinks or if he’s protecting the settlement he signed on his way out of Trump Tower.
That may not seem like much in a media environment in which we seem to hit a new low every week. But it’s one more reason why public distrust of the media is so widespread—and why it deserves to be.
Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, is a WGBH News commentator and analyst.