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CNN said Crossfire hosts won't have to disclose if they've "made a financial contribution to a politician" on the show. (Credit: CNN, screenshot)

CNN reversed its ethics standard for Crossfire and now says hosts don’t have to disclose when they or groups they work with have financial relationships with guests.

Crossfire, a debate-style show, went off the air in 2005, but CNN recently re-launched the program with four hosts:

  • former Obama Deputy Campaign Manager and White House Senior Adviser Stephanie Cutter
  • former Special Adviser for Green Jobs under President Obama, Van Jones
  • conservative New York Daily News columnist S.E. Cupp
  • former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

Four weeks ago, when questions around around Newt Gingrich’s role as honorary co-chair of the American Legacy political action committee, CNN’s Rick Davis, Executive Vice President of News Standards and Practices, told Media Matters that the show would require disclosures of any financial relationships between hosts and guests:

“If Newt is helping fund a candidate and that candidate’s on the show, or being discussed on the show, of course he’ll disclose that.  Disclosure is important when it’s relevant.”

He added that Gingrich is “not a reporter” or an “anchor” but a “strategist and a partisan.” Further, Davis said, if Gingrich or another host decides to run for office, they will be booted. “If they’re going to get in touch with the [Federal Election Commission] and start raising some money for a campaign our relationship’s over, or if they are going to start having some paid staff for some sort of campaign, our relationship’s over,” he said.

But later Davis told Media Matters it was OK for Gingrich to interview people who got money from his PAC:

“We are clarifying the policy and making it clear Newt Gingrich is not in violation.  The policy:  If a Crossfire co-host has made a financial contribution to a politician who appears on the program or is the focus of the program, disclosure is not required during the show since the co-host’s political support is obvious by his or her point of view expressed on the program.”

That statement was in response to accusations of conflict of interest against Gingrich and Stephanie Cutter. Gingrich’s PAC gave money to Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, both of whom appeared or were discussed on Crossfire without disclosure.  Cutter was criticized for her “close relationship with the Obama administration.”

Brian Stelter, a New York Times media reporter who has filled in as host of Reliable Sources a couple of times this year, criticized CNN for the decision about how to handle disclosures, Mediaite noted.

Stelter called for CNN to be transparent, noting that reporters have to “stay out of politics” but it’s trickier when pundits and politicians are hired.  “According to CNN, Crossfire pundits have never been prohibited from giving money to politicians. Including the ones they interview,” Stelter said. “But should they have to tell viewers who they give money to? Should thy have to disclose?”

He went on: “Employing political pundits is a choice.  News networks don’t have to do it. It’s a lot easier when they don’t. But if they’re going to employ political pundits, networks should bend over backwards, even flip over, to make sure viewers know what those pundits are up to.”

While noting that neither Gingrich or Crossfire is straight news, he still advised CNN disclose financial relationships.  “CNN can do better than this,” Stelter said, suggesting that the network discuss “its very issue of disclosure on Crossfire.” See video below of Stelter’s comments:

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Likewise, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple slammed CNN for making a “capitulation to modern Washington” and for hiring “hacks” as hosts.

“The network’s bellyflop on ‘Crossfire’ is a capitulation to modern Washington, a concession that it can’t put together a debate program with high-profile Beltway types who aren’t somehow conflicted on any big issue that comes before the public. The network faced a choice between:

“1) Issuing nonstop disclosures that would convince viewers of the show’s ethical wobbliness and hand media critics a stream of drip-drip-drip disclosure stories; or

“2) Issuing a one-time, absurd, anomalous and unethical “clarification” to internal ethics rules and sustaining one round of bad press.

“Here’s that bad press: ‘Crossfire’ hosts aren’t journalists; they’re not newspeople; they’re hacks!”

Further, Wemple differentiated between people understanding that hosts like Gingrich are partisan and people understanding that there’s financial relationships between Gingrich and guests.

“Everyone already knows that Gingrich is a conservative. That’s no disclosure at all. The fact that he might have a cash relationship with one of his guests? That‘s disclosure. Nothing corrupts like cash. Once you give someone money, you have a stake in that person. And CNN, in its heart, knows that.”

Fox News ended its contract with Liz Cheney this year after she said she was running for Senate. In 2011, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were fired by Fox News because of the possibility they were running for president.

In 2010, both MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Keith Olbermann were suspended because they had made undisclosed contributions to political campaigns without approval from the network in advance.

iMediaEthics has reached out to CNN for comment and will update with any response.

Hat Tip: Media Bistro

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CNN won’t make Crossfire Hosts Disclose Financial Conflicts of Interest

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