AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
CNN has won tremendous ratings in the run-up to the presidential election, but it's also run into a problem with some of its pundits in the process. The network just cut ties with some of its most prominent pundits, the acting head of the DNC, Donna Brazile. Hacked emails posted to WikiLeaks show Brazile shared questions for CNN debates in advance with Hillary's campaign. That shows to NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik that the way CNN uses pundits is broken.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pop quiz time - let's compare remarks by two women on CNN, both of whom favor Donald Trump. Here's the first.
KATRINA PIERSON: What Americans care most about, according to all the polling, is that - is she a liar?
FOLKENFLIK: And now the second.
KAYLEIGH MCENANY: I understand his frustrations with Hillary Clinton. I think there were a lot of women, actually, who watched Hillary Clinton and saw an arrogant smugness that they didn't like on the debate stage.
FOLKENFLIK: So what's the difference? The Trump campaign pays the first, Katrina Pierson, to act as a spokeswoman. CNN pays the second, Kayleigh McEnany, to advocate for Trump on TV. Every now and then, McEnany might briefly acknowledge a Trump misstep in the way Pierson, the spokeswoman, would not. Otherwise, I defy you to tell the difference. CNN condemned Donna Brazile this week for sharing information with the Clinton camp during the primaries and noted she had already taken a leave from CNN when she stepped in as the Democratic chairwoman. But back when she was a CNN commentator, Brazile was already a party vice-chairwoman.
MARK FELDSTEIN: The fact is she was there in a position where she could trade on that access to the benefit of a political campaign and to the detriment of CNN and the public.
FOLKENFLIK: Mark Feldstein is a veteran investigative reporter who worked for CNN for seven years. He's now a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland.
FELDSTEIN: This is the inevitable, inherent byproduct of what happens when you enter into these kind of incestuous relationships between pundits and television networks.
FOLKENFLIK: People working for a news organization, even those with a point of view, are supposed to exercise independent judgment. People working actively for a campaign or a party are supposed to be advancing the cause. Those lines get blurred on CNN, as on other cable networks. On the Republican side, consider, in particular, Corey Lewandowski. He is the former Trump campaign manager hired by CNN just a few days after being fired by Trump in late June. Lewandowski has proven repeatedly estranged from the truth, as are other paid Trump surrogates on CNN. Last night, Atlantic contributing editor Peter Beinart, a fellow CNN commentator, took exception to some especially outlandish claims Lewandowski made.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PETER BEINART: Listen, Corey. Don't give me this nonsense, OK?
FOLKENFLIK: Lewandowski cherry-picked polls, and he got Beinart's goat.
BEINART: Corey - Corey, listen. I'm not getting paid by one of the candidates, OK?
FOLKENFLIK: For several months, Lewandowski had been paid by both CNN and the Trump campaign. Lewandowski has been advising the campaign informally, and he struck back.
DON LEMON: Stand by.
COREY LEWANDOWSKI: Journalist is worse than being paid by a campaign, believe me.
LEMON: Stand by. Stand by. Stand by.
FOLKENFLIK: A journalist is worse - those words from someone being paid by CNN. Network executives say it's important to balance Trump's many critics who populate both parties. And they say paying pundits eases the constant anxiety of scrambling for a guest on short notice. Again, former CNN reporter Mark Feldstein.
FELDSTEIN: It's bad enough that these pundits are on the payroll spreading their disinformation in favor of their candidate or their party. Why does the network have to actually pay them to do this? Why don't they use that money to do actual journalism?
FOLKENFLIK: As NPR reported last month, CNN stands to make a hundred million dollars more than it's expected lift for the election cycle, due to the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. Journalists at the network tell NPR that the paid Trump surrogates help CNN keep his supporters engaged with their shows, but it also sends their own reporters busy chasing after many of their false claims. That's not a virtuous news cycle. It's an insidious one. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.