Why did CNN hire Castellanos, who has a history of using "racially charged" tactics? And why won't it note he's advising McCain?
On CNN this week, Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos responded to criticism of a joke that referred to Hillary Clinton as a "bitch" by saying, "[S]ome women, by the way, are named that and it's accurate."
That a CNN contributor would refer to Hillary Clinton -- or any other woman, for that matter -- as a "bitch" on air is obviously grossly inappropriate in its own right. But it also raises the question of why CNN hired Castellanos as a contributor in the first place.
Castellanos is best known for creating a 1990 television ad for Republican Sen. Jesse Helms that is considered one of the most racially inflammatory political ads ever produced. Here's how The New York Times described the ad on September 15, 2000:
In 1990, he created for Mr. Helms what is widely viewed as one of the most racially charged political commercials ever, with white hands crumpling a job rejection letter while a narrator criticizes Mr. Helms's black opponent, Harvey Gantt, for supporting "racial quotas."
A February 9, 1992, Washington Post article noted that Castellanos "followed the quota ad with one that accused Democrat Harvey Gantt, who is black, of using his minority status to obtain a television station that made him a millionaire. Gantt disputed the charge." The Federal Communications Commission reportedly said that contrary to the ad's claims, race was not a factor in awarding the station license to Gantt and his colleagues.
An October 7, 1994, Atlanta Journal and Constitution article explained that the Helms ad was not the only Castellanos commercial that has been criticized for "injecting a racial element into campaigns":
Some of Castellanos' work has been criticized for injecting a racial element into campaigns, such as an anti-quota commercial he made for Helms in 1990 that showed a pair of white hands opening a job rejection letter, or anti-welfare spots he made for Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice. He also worked on George Bush's successful 1988 presidential campaign, which produced the ad about furloughed prisoner Willie Horton.
And in 1996, the Houston Chronicle reported that Castellanos created an ad "similar" to the Helms ad for Republican Sen. Phil Gramm's campaign against his Mexican-American opponent.
Castellanos' history of "racially charged" campaigning should have been enough to prevent CNN from hiring him as a contributor. But considering the timing, Castellanos' hiring is all the more appalling. Castellanos apparently joined CNN as a contributor in March of this year. (March 4 was the first time Castellanos was identified as a contributor; during earlier appearances, he was identified simply as "Republican strategist.")
So, with Barack Obama within reach of becoming the first African-American major-party presidential nominee in U.S. history, CNN decided it would be a good time to hire as a contributor the maker of what is considered "one of the most racially charged political commercials ever."
That is a shockingly bad decision.
And as the presidential campaign unfolds, it looks worse and worse. Just this week, the Politico described "[t]he main obstacle standing between Barack Obama and the White House" as follows:
What began as a demonstrably false attempt to cast Obama as a Muslim has now metastasized into something far more threatening to the likely Democratic nominee. The spurious claims about his faith have spiraled into a broader assault that questions his patriotism and citizenship and generally portrays him as a threat to mainstream, white America.
That's the political environment in which CNN decided to hire Alex Castellanos as a contributor. Obama opponents are attempting to portray him "as a threat to mainstream, white America" -- and CNN hires a contributor who is best known for portraying a black candidate as a threat to white America.
But there's another problem with Castellanos' appearances as a CNN contributor: Castellanos is actively advising John McCain's presidential campaign.
On March 25, washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza reported that Castellanos is a member of the "McCain Ad Council" -- a "group of advisers ... [who] will serve as outside thinkers and strategists to the [McCain] media effort."
Not only has CNN hired Castellanos as a contributor despite his history of racially inflammatory ads, CNN has not disclosed the strategist's relationship with the McCain campaign during his appearances -- even when he favorably compares McCain to Obama.
During CNN's Democratic primary coverage on Tuesday, for example, Castellanos said: "Barack Obama contesting John McCain on foreign policy and on strength. I think that's John McCain's turf." On The Situation Room that same day, Castellanos declared national security McCain's "territory," adding, "McCain is the one who's got years of experience, the military background, the credibility in military and foreign policy affairs. So, I think, for McCain, it's certainly playing on home -- the home field advantage there." Viewers were given no indication that Castellanos is an adviser to McCain.
Nor were they told of his role in McCain's campaign when Castellanos suggested it is appropriate to call Hillary Clinton a "bitch." Or when he defended John McCain from charges that he had flip-flopped: "I think Senator McCain's position has been steady and constant."
CNN viewers weren't told that Alex Castellanos is advising John McCain when Castellanos said the North Carolina Republican Party's anti-Obama ad -- an ad McCain claimed to oppose -- raised "a fair question to be asking Barack Obama":
WOLF BLITZER (host of The Situation Room): Do you think it's despicable what the GOP in North Carolina is doing running a supposedly this ad linking Democratic candidates in North Carolina, not only to Barack Obama, but to the Reverend Wright?
CASTELLANOS: I think there's frankly a little hype going on here. There's nothing in that ad that hasn't run on every news network in America, including this one, time and time again. Senator McCain nevertheless has said no, it shouldn't be in the campaign.
I think the question it really raises is are the people that you find in Barack Obama's life, are they the same kind of people you'd find in a Barack Obama administration. That's, I think, a question of judgment. That's a fair question to be asking Barack Obama.
They weren't told that Alex Castellanos is advising John McCain when Castellanos said of Obama and Jeremiah Wright: "Obama is saying he supports someone whose statements put him way out of the mainstream of most American thought." Or when he accused Barack Obama of "elitism."
In fact, CNN viewers have never been told that Alex Castellanos is an adviser to John McCain. Not once.
Contrast that with the cable channel's treatment of James Carville and Paul Begala. CNN said that Carville's and Begala's ties to Hillary Clinton must be disclosed during every one of their appearances on CNN. CNN president Jonathan Klein said of Carville: "He's not on the Hillary payroll, but he's on the Hillary bandwagon, and that should be disclosed as much as we can."
But CNN doesn't apply those standards to Alex Castellanos, who is allowed to praise John McCain and to criticize Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton without it ever being disclosed to CNN viewers, by Castellanos or anyone else, that he is a member of the McCain Ad Council.
So CNN is preparing for the general election by hiring a contributor best known for playing on racial divisions and allowing him to praise John McCain and criticize Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton without ever telling viewers that he is a member of McCain's ad team, in direct violation of the standards CNN laid out for contributors who support Hillary Clinton.
CNN says it is "the most trusted name in news."