Donna Brazile. Photo by Tim Pierce.
Suppose I show up for a concert at a club with my pet alligator under my arm.
The club manager catches sight of us and simply says, “Hey, nice alligator,” before ushering me inside. During the show, the alligator bites someone. Surely they’ll eject the alligator, and most likely they’ll throw me out too. But what about the club manager who let an alligator into his place of business? Should he face any consequences for his poor decision-making?
No, I don’t actually have a pet alligator. And I don’t take Broccoli, the turtle who lives in our company headquarters, out on the town either. But I imagined this scenario when CNN announced this week that it had parted ways with analyst-turned-DNC-chairwoman Donna Brazile.
Emails published by WikiLeaks revealed that Brazile secretly fed anticipated questions to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in advance of several of this year’s primary debates. The first question was about the death penalty, and a separate email thread concerned a potential question about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the March 6 debate was held. Brazile, who was then vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, initially suggested the documents might have been “misinformation,” but quietly resigned from CNN on Oct. 14. Her work as an analyst had already been suspended as of July, when she became the interim leader of the DNC, though the previous assumption was that she might have eventually reclaimed her on-air position. While no town hall questions precisely correlated with Brazile’s warnings, the topics she mentioned did arise in both instances.
Was it unethical of Clinton’s team to use information from Brazile about potential questions in her debate preparations? No more so than it would be unethical for a journalist to use leaked information in a story. A journalist’s job is to report the news; a politician’s job is to win elections; an alligator’s job is to bite things. Don’t blame them for being what they are.
Sure, if I am the alligator’s enabler, I bear some responsibility for its behavior. Brazile was a paid analyst for CNN, and she had an obligation to the network to uphold its journalistic standards. Sometimes these standards are a bit hard to decipher, but not leaking questions in advance of a televised debate should have been an easy call.
But Brazile, too, was merely an alligator being an alligator. CNN called her an analyst, but really she was a paid spin-meister, there to provide one side of a story. She provided commentary in a very particular vein on such shows as “The Situation Room” and “New Day,” and no one expected her to be anything other than partisan in such appearances. These contributions are a routine part of the entertainment aspect of televised news. Someone decided a while ago that audiences would rather watch people yell at each other than actually learn anything. Brazile was there simply to participate in the nightly circus.
Left out of the CNN announcement was any hint that any newsroom supervisor would be held responsible for having put Brazile on the premises in the first place. Several weeks ago, a CNN spokeswoman flatly denied that Brazile could have gotten information from her work as an analyst. “We have never, ever given a town hall question to anyone beforehand,” she told The Washington Post’s “Erik Wemple Blog.” More recently, one of the follow-up emails from Brazile suggested that the source of the questions may have been Roland Martin, the debate’s co-moderator, according to Politico. A CNN employee said that Brazile may have met the woman who planned to ask about lead poisoning in Flint at a service event the day before the town hall.
However Brazile got her information, it should not be a mystery to her then-bosses at CNN. Yet CNN’s recent statement about Brazile’s resignation emphasized that “CNN never gave Brazile access to any questions, prep material, attendee list, background information or meetings in advance of a town hall or debate.” The statement also said CNN was “completely uncomfortable” with Brazile’s interactions with the Clinton campaign.
Expecting a political hack like Brazile not to try to curry favor with her party’s presidential favorite is like expecting an alligator not to bite any nearby mammals because it has declared itself a vegan. Anyone foolish enough to make that bet ought to be too foolish to run a network television news program.
Brazile’s departure will evidently be treated as some sort of fluke when it was actually anything but. The small-time corruption of this year’s primary debate process in favor of Clinton is just part of the bigger corruption of cable news, which often is not news at all.