Powerful interests are often pundits’ real bosses
On an episode of NBC’s Meet the Press (6/23/13), right-leaning pundit Mike Murphy called Edward Snowden a “so-called whistleblower” and defended the NSA’s wide-ranging surveillance programs. “The Internet is an incredibly effective tool for terrorists and outlaws,” he said. “So it’s not surprising that the security side of the state is trying to compete with that.”
What might have been surprising to viewers, as Lee Fang reported for the Nation (6/24/13), is that “Murphy himself has a stake in this debate that arguably ought to have been disclosed.” The lobbying firm he founded, Navigators Global, represents large private contractors that work with the NSA.
And in 2011, Murphy joined Revolution Agency, a PR firm whose clients include major corporations and trade groups. The firm creates advertising campaigns on key political issues from energy policy to consumer protection—opposing the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, for instance.
Murphy, as Revolution’s website proudly notes, writes regular columns for Time magazine and appears on NPR and Meet the Press.
But do readers, viewers or listeners have any idea what Murphy does at his day job?
If they do, it’s not because the outlets feel any obligation to disclose anything about his work. Murphy is usually identified as a “former Republican strategist”—which tells something about his politics, but nothing about the very powerful interests paying his salary.
Murphy isn’t the only one, of course. Plenty of pundits play the role of partisan warriors in cable TV studios. But that’s not their real job—or at least not the one where they likely make their real money.
Take Stephanie Cutter, one of the two new hosts “from the left” on the relaunched version of CNN’s Crossfire.
Once described as “a one-woman rapid response squad flooding the zones on cable, YouTube and the Sunday news shows” (Politico, 7/8/12), Cutter is a heavyweight political strategist with nicknames like “The Ninja” and “Box Cutter” (New York Times, 10/12/12). After stints in the Clinton White House and at the Democratic National Committee, Cutter was on the presidential campaign team for both John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.
Cutter’s partisan track record makes her a perfect fit for corporate media’s left/right debates. But taking over at Crossfire is just part of her work. This year she formed Precision Strategies, a PR firm with other former Obama White House officials, specializing in communications and “crisis management.”
The obvious question: Who do they work for? Precision, like many companies in this line of work, does not make its client list public. But the Wall Street Journal (5/9/13) reported that Cutter—along with former George W. Bush adviser Ed Gillespie—was “providing strategic advice to Bank of America on several issues, including efforts to break up the banks.”
That left the Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins (5/10/13) to speculate that Cutter “may also soon be repping Bank of America’s point of view on a rebooted Crossfire for CNN.” You can imagine the show’s new introduction: On the left, a professional defender of corporate interests; on the right, Newt Gingrich.
As reported by PR Week (5/2/13), Cutter “said her work at Precision would not preclude her from future TV work.” It’s natural for her to see the two roles as complementary; access to a powerful media platform makes her much more valuable as a PR operative. But media outlets are supposed to have rules that prevent such conflicts of interest.
Cutter isn’t the only former Obama official to find work as a TV pundit. In fact, many of them can be found on the same channel: the liberal-leaning MSNBC. That’s where former Obama adviser David Axelrod landed after leaving the administration, joining the cable channel as a senior analyst in early 2013 (L.A. Times, 2/19/13). Unlike some other pundits, Axelrod—a former journalist—made his reputation in communications and PR long before he was a pundit, running the AKPD consulting firm before getting into electoral politics.
The firm was considered the “gold standard in Astroturf organizing” (Businessweek, 3/14/08), the manufacture of phony grassroots campaigns on behalf of corporate interests like Comcast and Commonwealth Edison.
Around the same time MSNBC hired Axelrod, the channel announced that former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs would be making appearances as a contributor.
But that’s not his only job. A few months after joining MSNBC, it was announced that Gibbs was starting the Incite Agency, a strategic communications firm affiliated with New Partners (Washington Post, 6/13/13). While it is too early to get a sense of who Gibbs and his colleagues will be representing, it stands to reason that corporate or political clients will value the fact that he makes regular TV appearances.
Even if you’re not opening your own PR shop, experience in the Obama White House is very profitable. As the Washington Post (5/30/13) reported, “on issues ranging from gun control to mining to legalized gambling,” former Obama staffers like Gibbs find themselves much in demand. Gibbs, the Post noted, was one of several former White House officials who got “five-figure checks” to give speeches in Azerbaijan, a country “in the midst of a campaign to burnish its image in Washington.”
The Post (3/17/13) also noted, “Companies still pay handsomely to hear from a top political operative such as Axelrod,” who had “recently joined the Washington Speakers Bureau.” Who will be paying him, and for what, should be of interest to people who see him on TV—and it should be of concern to NBC and MSNBC.
The problem of pundit disclosures is, of course, not unique to MSNBC. Consider Hilary Rosen, former Recording Industry Association of America CEO and a frequent contributor at CNN. Rosen is, as a 2011 Politico profile explained, well-connected: “When it comes to attending parties, she can afford to be choosy, overlooking many of the less exclusive events for those you probably weren’t invited to.” Rosen waded into some controversy in 2012 campaign season when she said that Ann Romney, the wife of the GOP presidential candidate, had “never worked a day in her life” (CNN, 4/11/13).
But Rosen’s real job deserves more attention. She is currently the managing director for strategic communications and public relations at SKDKnickerbocker, a firm criticized for using its “perceived White House access” to sign clients (Hot Air, 4/13/12).
Sometimes these connections become a problem. In the midst of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, Rosen was forced out as the Huffington Post’s Washington editor at large because of her connection to oil giant BP (Politico, 6/4/10). At the time, Rosen managed BP’s public relations at the Brunswick Group, a communications/lobbying firm. The Huffington Post’s decision made perfect sense from an ethical standpoint, but one does have to wonder why such conflicts become impermissible only in times of acute national crisis; at ordinary times, not revealing which corporations are paying you, and for what, is apparently fine.
While many of these profiting pundits play the “left” on TV, there are plenty of conservatives hard at work at the same game. After he supposedly “broke” with George W. Bush and politics, strategist Matthew Dowd told the New York Times (4/1/07) that it was time for a big career change:
I wouldn’t be surprised if I wasn’t walking around in Africa or South America doing something that was like mission work.… I do feel a calling of trying to re-establish a level of gentleness in the world.
That would have been heartwarming. But instead Dowd became a pundit, making appearances on outlets like ABC, where he is a regular contributor. His more lucrative gig is as a partner at Vianovo, a strategic consulting firm that assists major corporations like AT&T and Airbus on “high-stakes brand, policy and crisis issues.”
One of Cutter’s new Crossfire sparring partners, Kevin Madden, is best known for his role as a spokesperson for the Mitt Romney presidential campaigns. He is executive VP of public affairs at JDA Frontline, which works for corporations and trade associations like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (Politico, 5/14/13).
And then there are the times when the ideological lines get a little blurry, if they weren’t blurry enough already. Former RNC chair Michael Steele and Fox News liberal Lanny Davis are cable news fixtures—and business partners. Steele’s tenure at the RNC was marked by gaffes and scandal (Washington Post, 4/7/10), while Davis’ history has included working on behalf of the dictators of Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast (Salon, 12/21/10).
In June 2012, they founded the bipartisan-themed Purple Nation Solutions, a communications firm that specializes in “solutions through legal means, political lobbying and media management” for “CEOs, Fortune 500 companies, political leaders, lobbyists and individuals facing a crisis.”
In fact, it’s difficult to catalog all of the possible conflicts of interest among elite TV pundits. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell plays a TV liberal on MSBNC—but he’s also an adviser at investment bank Greenhill & Co, as well as an operating partner at a small firm that makes investments in the energy industry.
Another TV liberal, Harold Ford, who makes frequent appearances on NBC and MSNBC, also has a day job: He works as a senior managing director for the investment giant Morgan Stanley. Columnist Glenn Greenwald (Salon, 7/9/12) called Ford “the walking, breathing embodiment of virtually everything rotted and corrupt about the American political class”—in other words, a ubiquitous TV pundit.
Once upon a time, such conflicts were considered ethically questionable—once they were exposed by other journalists. Back in 2008, Ken Silverstein of Harper’s (6/12/08, 6/21/08) revealed that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and David Broder were regulars on the corporate lecture circuit; the Post’s ombud Deborah Howell (6/22/08) reported that Broder declared he was “embarrassed by these mistakes.”
The next year, former Newsweek reporter Richard Wolffe appeared as a guest host on Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC show Countdown (7/30/09). But Wolffe wasn’t a reporter any more; as Salon’s Greenwald (8/1/09) reported, he worked as a senior strategist at Public Strategies, a corporate PR firm. Olbermann took the issue seriously, apologizing and declaring that “until we can clarify what else he is doing, he will not be appearing with us” (Huffington Post, 9/3/09). NBC issued a statement saying that they “should have disclosed Richard’s connection to Public Strategies.”
Just a few years later, it is not clear whether cable news outlets still think they need to tell viewers what their leading pundits really do for a living.