CBS News hires a former Trump official, now a lobbyist for the wealthy and powerful, to offer impartial news analysis
Why is trust in the media so low? We may never know.
This morning a CBS News contributor went on air to discuss a wealth tax proposal in Joe Biden’s budget, which was released this week. The contributor was himself a former director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, which made him “the guy to ask about this,” in the words of CBS anchor Anne-Marie Green.
The segment was billed as a kind of straight news-style explainer of the proposal, and blasted out as such from CBS News’ official Twitter feed. But CBS omitted a number of key details about their new contributor, details which would have helped viewers assess that person’s credibility. Among them:
The contributor was not just any former OMB director, but the former director of Donald Trump’s OMB;
He was also the director of Trump’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency which he essentially destroyed from within, according to the New York Times;
He also served as Trump’s White House Chief of Staff. During his tenure there he played a key role in pressuring the president of Ukraine to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden prior to the 2020 election, conduct which eventually led to Trump’s first impeachment.
As Chief of Staff at the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic, he famously called the pandemic the “media hoax of the day” roughly two weeks before the entire country shut down. He dumped about half a million dollars in stock right around this time.
Prior to joining the White House the contributor was a Republican congressman from South Carolina, an “ideological bomb-thrower from the congressional fringe,” as described by Politico.
The contributor is now drawing a salary as a co-chair of high octane lobbying shop Actum, which acts in the interests of precisely the same wealthy and powerful entities that would be affected by the wealth tax proposal he was invited on air to discuss.
The contributor has not exactly built a reputation for honesty during his time in Washington. Out of 8 Politifact fact-checks, for instance, 6 of his statements were rated “false” or “mostly false.” Some of his lies were so egregious the normally staid Washington Post fact-checker remarked “we’re not sure what [he] has been smoking, except his own propaganda.”
But none of that information about newly-minted CBS contributor Mick Mulvaney was disclosed to viewers. He was positioned instead as sort of an independent third-party analyst, and used that perch to spin and opine against Biden’s tax proposal.
I’m absolutely dumbfounded by it all; it’s one of the most egregious violations of media ethics I’ve ever witnessed. Mulvaney is a hardcore partisan ideologue with a well documented track record of lying and obfuscation during his time in Washington — precisely the worst type of person to be offering independent news analysis.
Normally, I’d expect a guy like him to be brought on in an opinion context to talk trash about Biden’s agenda from the explicit standpoint of a former Trump official. I don’t think that’s right, by the way — political figures are terrible op-ed contributors because you always know exactly how they’ll fall on any given issue, and beyond that credible news outlets shouldn’t be rehabilitating former members of an administration that lied relentlessly to the American people and ultimately tried to destroy democracy from within. It’s not right, but the media is kind of a trash heap — especially cable and broadcast — and that’s the behavior I’d expect.
What CBS has done, however, is something else entirely. In my most cynical moments I never imagined a mainstream network would position a guy like Mulvaney as an impartial news analyst without disclosing any of his past or current conflicts of interest. It just blows my mind. In order to give you a sense of how these issues are typically treated in mainstream media settings: when my wife ran unopposed for a nonpartisan city council seat in our town of 1,400 people, the Washington Post told me I could never write anything involving this region of the state of Minnesota again, and that I was barred from putting up yard signs or mentioning her position on social media. I’m still mad about this, obviously, but that’s the stuff we’re usually talking about when we talk “media ethics.”
So CBS’ handling of Mulvaney is literally incomprehensible to me. The network has plenty of business journalists on staff, and they could easily call up any one of hundreds of academics or tax experts to offer something like real independent analysis of the Biden proposal. Instead, they went with a known liar who proudly identifies as a “right wing nutjob” and who is directly implicated in some of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history. And they didn’t disclose any of it!
Daily Show staffer Matt Negrin has documented a long list of weird acts of Republican bias at CBS News. He notes that until September of last year, the person overseeing political coverage at the network was a former GOP congressional staffer. While that person isn’t there anymore, it may explain part of the apparent deep-seated Republican bias at the network.
I reached out to CBS PR multiple times to see if they wanted to respond to any of the criticism of their new hire, but I haven’t heard back. If I had to guess, I suspect they simply assumed that “Mick Mulvaney, former White House OMB Director” would be sufficient disclosure. But keep in mind that most people don’t know what an OMB is, and Mulvaney isn’t exactly a household name. In a YouGov survey taken at the height of the 2019 Trump Ukraine scandal, more than half of respondents didn’t know enough about Mulvaney to offer an opinion on his favorability. My guess is CBS will eventually issue a vague statement acknowledging they should have done more to disclose his former political and current lobbying conflicts, but who knows.
At any rate, my #1 prescription for restoring public trust in the media still stands: stop letting political operatives masquerade as journalists.