CNN draws fire for hiring former DOJ spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores

CNN's Brian Stelter pushed back against critics of the hire, noting that Isgur is just the most recent example of public servants moving into the media industry.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores participates in a forum called Generation Next at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington
Sarah Isgur Flores, then a Justice Department spokeswoman, at a Generation Next forum in Washington last year. Leah Millis / Reuters file

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By Claire Atkinson

CNN’s hiring of a former spokeswoman for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a political editor has renewed debate over the “revolving door” between politics and journalism.

On Tuesday, Politico reported that the cable news channel had named Sarah Isgur Flores, a former Justice Department spokesperson with no prior background in journalism, to the team that will direct the network’s coverage of the 2020 election.

On Wednesday morning, an email from CNN political director David Chalian, newsgathering vice president Virginia Mosley and Washington bureau chief Sam Feist laid out Isgur’s role.

“Sarah will spend the first few months here getting to know our systems and our people,” they wrote in the email, which was obtained by NBC News. “Eventually we plan to have her play a coordinating role in our daily political coverage — helping to organize and communicate between newsgathering, digital, and television. With two dozen candidates to cover, constant coordination is needed more than ever.”

News of Isgur’s hiring quickly drew criticism from former government employees and journalists.

“As a former DOJ Spox, I am flabbergasted by this,” tweeted Melanie R. Newman, a former Justice Department spokeswoman under Loretta Lynch, during the Obama administration. “Does anyone think I could have gone to CNN after being spox for Loretta Lynch? Anyone? No? Me either.”

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, tweeted, “What I mostly think about this is that either Isgur will not really be doing the job she is described as doing, or CNN will not really be doing journalism during the 2020 campaign."

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CNN did not respond to a request for comment.

CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter pushed back against critics of the hire, noting that Isgur is just the most recent example of public servants moving into the news media industry.

ABC hired former presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos, while Tim Russert was an aide to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo before joining NBC News and becoming host of “Meet the Press.” CBS recently hired Caitlin Conant as political director. She had been director of communications for CBS News in Washington and was previously a regional communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

“‘GOP operative joins CNN’ is getting a LOT of criticism, especially from Dems,” Stelter tweeted. “But love it or hate it, political insiders have been joining newsrooms for decades. The more viewpoints represented in newsrooms, the better. As for the critiques, @CNNPR declined to comment.”

CNN has not released a statement on Isgur’s hiring. Isgur did not respond to a request for comment.

CNN, a favorite target for criticism from President Donald Trump, has hired a variety of pro-Trump voices in an attempt to bring balance to the perspectives of its commentary, including former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski; Jason Miller, former Trump campaign communications director; and Jeffrey Lord, who was a staff member in the Reagan administration — each of whom is no longer with CNN.

The digital media website Vox reported that Isgur won’t be involved with stories about the Justice Department, which is at the center of one of the biggest political stories of the day — the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Brett Bruen, president of the consulting firm Global Situation Room and a former diplomat under President Barack Obama, said Isgur’s hiring adds to the recent erosion of journalistic norms.

“It’s the continual blurring of what is news, politics and entertainment,” Bruen said. “It is a really concerning development, one that is put out without any explanation.”

“We ought to be finding ways in which more moderate voices can be part of this coverage,” Bruen added.

Isgur had been a vocal critic of Trump before joining the DOJ, and a critic of CNN, at one point calling it the “Clinton News Network” in a tweet.

Mike McCurry, who was White House press secretary for President Bill Clinton, offered a positive word for Isgur.

“Go easy on anyone who escapes from Trump-land for the real world ... so long as they are good and qualified,” he said.

In addition to the political intrigue, Isgur’s hiring comes as CNN’s owner, AT&T, is in a long-running battle with the Justice Department over its acquisition of Time Warner. The DOJ had once suggested that CNN or another major asset be sold in order for AT&T to win approval.

The Justice Department is still fighting the AT&T-Time Warner merger in the courts.