"I'm Sick of CNN Surrogates"

September 13th, 2016

Screenshot of CNN with presidential surrogates Up until the last few decades, if I saw a surrogate being interviewed on the news, she was there to talk about carrying a baby to term for a couple who couldn't conceive. Or if a surrogate appeared on an edgy daytime talk show, she might be discussing the benefits of helping couples learn how to couple. All that changed thanks to CNN. More on surrogates in a moment, but first, some background.

When CNN first went on the air in 1980 I was hired as a freelance reporter to cover special assignments. I found myself standing alongside Sam Donaldson where I asked candidate Ronald Reagan about the upcoming election. I camped out in the lobby of the State Department to await news of the return of our hostages from Iran. I also recall being laughed at by reporters from the major networks who thought CNN couldn't do real news. Slowly but surely, however, viewers began to gravitate to the fledgling network, especially whenever there was big political news or an international crisis. Back then CNN was run and staffed by actual journalists who double-checked their sources before breaking a story. On-air anchors didn't editorialize, and reporters didn't spin. All that changed over time as ratings and revenues became increasingly important. In 1995, Ted Turner merged his beloved CNN with Time Warner, and five years later the cable giant was gobbled up by AOL. Somewhere along the way, the CNN that I knew had ceased to exist.

Today, CNN feeds the 24-hour beast by making news as entertaining as possible.

Producers no longer care if a story is right, so long as they break it first and milk it forever. CNN's manic on-air approach led to the misidentification of family members and suspects at Sandy Hook and at the Boston marathon. And the network led viewers on an all-day tour de farce when covering the 2009 Colorado balloon boy saga, at one point reporting that the child might have fallen to his death. As it turned out, he was never inside the rogue balloon to begin with.

But CNN's fall from journalistic grace is never more evident than it is in an election year. That's when the network trots out a stable of partisan surrogates to fill up the airwaves. Sometimes the surrogates are retired military officers. Sometimes they are current or former congressmen and cabinet members. Sometimes, they are even family members of the candidate. And while blood relatives are loyal, they are not always helpful. Rick Perry and Ted Cruz, for example, suffered majored embarrassments when their respective spouses misspoke. And just last week, Hillary took a hit when Bill said that Donald Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" was racist. It seems that Bill used that same slogan in his 1992 campaign, and then again in a TV ad for Hillary in 2008. Oops! Perhaps that's why presidential campaigns rely so heavily on professional surrogates who are paid handsomely to parrot the views of the candidate, and defend his or her positions and gaffes at all costs.

This year, Trump and Clinton have sent over thirty different surrogates to appear on CNN, so you have to think there's a method to their madness. However, according to Dan Schnur, a former Republican campaign official, the strategy of using substitutes isn't going to matter at the end of the day. As reported by Nora Kelly in the May 24 edition of The Atlantic, Schnur said, "There hasn't been much research to quantify surrogates' influence, but they certainly don't win or lose elections." Perhaps that's because these surrogates frequently engage in frenetic, on-air fight fests with one yelling over top of the other until neither can be understood. Or perhaps it's just because they don't say or scream anything new. Or, most likely it's because what we as viewers really want, is to hear the candidate speak for himself. Ana Marie Cox probably agrees. Earlier this year she was invited to appear on Poppy Harlow's program, and found herself seated across from Boris Epshteyn, a Trump spokesperson. As dailykos.com reported, Ms. Cox listened to Mr. Epshteyn spew his bilge until she couldn't take it anymore. Speaking to Harlow, Cox said, "Before you ask me anything, I want to respond to Boris. I am not a paid surrogate. I'm not a Trump supporter, and I didn't support Hillary in the primaries. I'm a journalist, and you've got me sitting here trying to debate a paid shill who can't even stay on point." Ms. Cox then proceeded to destroy Epshteyn with surgical precision. I wish all of CNN's roundtable discussions were like that one.

The Cox/Epshteyn encounter notwithstanding, CNN obviously thinks it has a winning formula by subjecting viewers to an endless parade of paid spokespersons who argue with one another at the top of their lungs. But what I don't understand is why Clinton and Trump need so many surrogates in the first place. After all, It only takes one surrogate to help you get pregnant. I guess it has something to do with the size of the baby you're working with.

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