When former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders joined Fox News as a contributor last week, her announcement was greeted with a predictable flurry of jokes about the minimal difference between her new role at the conservative network and her old job for the Trump administration. But she was hardly the first government official of either major political faction to find a new perch in the media—or to move the other way, for that matter. It’s all part of the creeping merger between the political class and the journalists supposedly tasked with subjecting government to scrutiny.
That kind of close relationship between the public and the nominally private sector isn’t new. The revolving door between government and lobbying has long seen officials, both elected and appointed, move from powerful jobs regulating industry to well-paid jobs glad-handing their old colleagues on behalf of regulated industries. Although it troubles seemingly everybody, the relationship is inevitable given the power of the state and the need by companies to cultivate insider contacts to beg (or pay) for special favors or just leniency when navigating red tape.
But the lobbying business evolved to formalize contacts between officials and industry that were going to take place anyway. The flow of faces and names between government and “news” media has turned what was supposed to be a watchdog over the destructive power of the state into little more than a forum for political marketing and an extended battleground for factional fighting.
Hours after Huckabee announced her deal with Fox New, CNN revealed a similar relationship with former FBI deputy director and Trump antagonist Andrew McCabe. McCabe might well look up former colleagues from the FBI Josh Campbell and James Gagliano, since they also hold plum positions with the network and share common sentiments about the current resident of the White House.
From the intelligence community comes former CIA director John Brennan, who has a sweet deal with NBC as a senior national security and intelligence analyst—duties that make him a counterpart to his predecessor, Michael Hayden, at CNN. James Clapper, who lied to Congress about warrantless domestic spying when he was director of national intelligence, also landed a nice job at CNN as a national security analyst.
“National security veterans thrive under TV’s grow lights” in numbers “almost too numerous to list” Politico‘s Jack Shafer noted last year.
More pedestrian members of the political class thrive, too, as exemplified by Huckabee’s hiring at Fox News. Former Trump aide Hope Hicks is at Fox Corporation, as well as her one-time deputy, Raj Shah.
More people have moved in the other direction, including Bill Shine, who left Fox to work at the White House before shifting to Trump’s reelection campaign. Heather Nauert left the network to join the administration and was briefly considered for appointment as UN ambassador. Ben Carson, now Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and John Bolton, now National Security Adviser, were both Fox News contributors before their current administration jobs.
Tom Homan took quite a spin through the revolving door, serving as acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement director under Trump before taking as gig as a Fox News contributor and then returning to the administration as “border czar.”
“They are joined at the hip,” Fox News personality Juan Williams says of his employer and the Trump White House.
Which you might also say of CNN anchor Chris Cuomo regarding his interview with brother Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York. Hard-hitting stuff, that.
Fox leans right and pro-Trump while most of the rest of the news media leans left and anti-Trump, and the outlets’ chosen representatives of the political class publicly spar over which faction should operate the mechanisms of government power. Whether those mechanisms should exist at all isn’t something that commonly comes up. James Clapper certainly has few qualms about the surveillance state, Tom Homan doesn’t ponder the wisdom of strict border controls, and Andrew McCabe is a lousy candidate for examining the excesses of law enforcement, just as Sarah Huckabee Sanders isn’t likely to question executive overreach.
Their big disagreement is over who should be in charge, not what they should be in charge of.
Former cops, spooks, and politicians “remain protective of their institutions. This makes nearly every word that comes out of their mouths suspect,” Politico‘s Shafer commented in his 2018 piece. “Imagine a TV network covering the auto industry through the eyes of dozens of paid former auto executives and you begin to appreciate the current peculiarities.”
Put that way, the vitriolic fulminating at the networks over policies, official conduct, and political outcomes has very little to do with informing members of the viewing audience about current events and the wisdom or lack thereof in various proposals. Instead, it’s all about jockeying for position among factions vying for power, attempts to win over the public to one side or another, and petty sniping between those temporarily out of power and those momentarily in charge. Any information gleaned, beyond the current temperament of the players, is almost beside the point.
True, the incestuous relationship between elite media and the people they cover, socialize with, and sleep with isn’t a recent development. “Every administration draws in a few journalists, typically as speechwriters and press secretaries, a natural given the overlapping skills,” The Washington Post reported in 2013. “But Obama may be different in terms of the sheer number of ink-stained wretches and other news-media denizens that he has attracted.”
The problem clearly hasn’t slowed under a new administration from a different party. Instead, familiar faces move from government office to media slots and back again in copious numbers, sorting according to the outlets that represent their factions and distorting “news” coverage of the government that plays a core role in their lives.
We’d be better off if they all took jobs as lobbyists. That might leave a little more room for actual scrutiny of the government.