NEW YORK – The hiring of non-journalists as contributors to television news organizations isn't new. Far less common is seeing pushback to such decisions from journalists working there, as has happened recently at CBS and NBC News.
Discontent emerged over CBS' hiring of former Trump administration official Mick Mulvaney as a commentator and discussions about current White House press secretary Jen Psaki working at MSNBC when her time in the Biden administration is through.
In both cases, journalists have been quiet publicly about their concerns over the decisions. Because of concern about Psaki — which has raised ethical issues for the press secretary — NBC News President Noah Oppenheim was compelled to address the discussions in a phone meeting with Washington-based staff, first reported by CNN.
While both cases are different, the fact that these internal complaints surfaced illustrates some of the pressures many journalists feel under, said Mark Whitaker, a former executive at NBC News, CNN and Newsweek. They already work in a hyper-partisan time and face accusations of promoting “fake news,” he said.
“There's a feeling of ‘this just makes our job harder when we’re under attack anyway,'” Whitaker said.
Each case is more complex than rubbing elbows at the water cooler with a partisan.
Neither MSNBC nor Psaki have publicly confirmed their talks about a role there. MSNBC has already hired Symone Sanders, former chief spokeswoman for Vice President Kamala Harris, for a job that begins in May. NBC News has taken pains to draw distinctions between its journalists and MSNBC, which has beefed up its opinion programming, although that's awkward when journalists like Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd both have shows on the cable network.
At least until the situation becomes clearer, NBC News journalists are put in the uncomfortable position of having professional contact with someone who may soon become a colleague.
NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker asked Psaki about her status at a recent White House briefing, saying “is it ethical for you to keep conducting this job while negotiating with a media outlet?”
Without confirming or denying those talks, Psaki said she had already gone “over and above” stringent ethical requirements. Welker followed up twice, asking “how can you be an effective briefer if you do, in fact, have plans to join a media outlet?”
Psaki said she has taken steps to make sure there is no conflict. While the situation is still in flux, CNN reported that she is not expected to do any on-camera interviews with NBC News or MSNBC personnel, and won't be involved in decisions about booking administration officials on the networks.
Oppenheim declined an opportunity to discuss the issue, through a spokesman.
CBS News said Mulvaney's signing was part of the network's buildup of its roster of contributors in advance of the 2022 midterm and 2024 presidential elections. The news division's co-president, Neeraj Khemlani, said in a staff meeting prior to the announcement that CBS is making sure that it hires contributors that ensure the network has access to officials in both parties with a midterm election looming, according to a tape of that meeting provided to the Washington Post.
In addition to internal grumbling, CBS News received outside criticism; Post columnist Margaret Sullivan, for example, blasted the “ galling cynicism ” of the move. A former congressman, Mulvaney served Trump as chief of staff, as well as director of the Office of Management and Budget.
CBS has had other like-minded outsiders as contributors, like former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus, and it recently announced the signing of former national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Mulvaney, however, drew criticism for lying when he publicly admitted Trump had withheld aid to Ukraine to pressure the country into investigating political opponents, then later suggesting he hadn't said that. In the early days of the coronavirus, he said the media was hyping the virus as a way to bring down Trump.
“Even in opinion journalism, a respect for facts is essential,” said Geneva Overholser, a veteran consultant who's worked at both the University of Missouri and USC Annenberg journalism schools.
“I read the CBS staff reaction as trying to hold onto that principle, to continue to uphold the network's honor,” she said. “More power to them.”
Khemlani was not made available for an interview. CBS said that when Mulvaney makes appearances as a commentator on political news, he will be with news anchors who can give context to his statements.
Since the March 29 announcement that he'd been hired as a contributor, he's appeared once on the network's streaming service but not yet on TV, a spokeswoman said.