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Media critics say CNN’s use of paid pro-Trump surrogates has undercut the network’s journalism and the “goal of informing its audience.”
After the third and final presidential debate, Trump surrogates scrambled to spin Donald Trump’s statement that he may not accept the results of the election, putting forward a litany of absurd claims. On CNN, that role was filled by the network’s roster of paid contributors who were specifically hired for their willingness to defend Trump.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen criticized the “candidate surrogate” system CNN invested in during this campaign cycle, explaining that CNN’s “Surrogates are unwilling to defend Trump, so they change him into a man more defensible.” He added that because CNN’s Trump surrogates frequently attempt to mislead the network’s audience, CNN has “wasted our time, undermined the work of their journalists, and made the election-year discussion more opaque [than] it would have been if they had never invited these people on set.”
The Columbia Journalism Review’s David Uberti similarly wrote that having the Trump surrogates on-air to spin the widely condemned remarks made by Trump during the debate “overstepped CNN’s reporting and undercut its purported goal of informing its audience”:
The consensus headline from the third and final presidential debate was Republican candidate Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the 2016 election results. It was a stunning rebuke of American political norms from the nominee of a major political party, and it quickly dominated coverage online Wednesday night and in major print newspapers Thursday morning.The Associated Press’ lede said Trump is “threatening to upend a fundamental pillar of American democracy.”
At CNN, however, confusion initially reigned. The network’s journalists expressed shock at Trump’s comments within seconds of the debate’s conclusion. “One of the most stunning things I’ve ever heard in a presidential debate, ever,” said Jake Tapper, the network’s chief Washington correspondent.
But pro-Trump contributors attempted to muddle this point during a panel discussion after the debate, when viewership was likely highest. Their baseless speculation that the election might somehow be rigged overstepped CNN’s reporting and undercut its purported goal of informing its audience. The comments, which drew stern rebuttals from other CNN on-air talent, highlight how the network’s pursuit of the appearance of objectivity in 2016 has distorted its final product on television. It also provides a clear example of how the channel’s model puts CNN journalists in the awkward position of fact-checking CNN contributors in real time.
Uberti concluded: “CNN pays pro-Trump contributors to provide it with a shinier veneer of objectivity. But it’s become all too clear in recent months that this mission actively harms its journalists’ pursuit of the truth. The news organization must clarify where its real priorities lie.”
CNN’s reliance on Trump surrogates to provide defense for a “candidate who doesn’t exist” has come under increased scrutiny over recent weeks, with their decision to hire former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was still receiving payment from the Trump campaign, as a paid political analyst.
Media Matters’ Carlos Maza highlighted CNN’s Trump surrogate problem, noting how surrogates refuse to answer legitimate questions about Trump’s positions and controversies and instead point unrelated discussions that devolve into personal attacks.