Feb. 25 2016, 11:51 a.m.
Tune into television coverage of the presidential campaign and undoubtedly you will hear from various pundits described as “former campaign strategists” and “political contributors” explaining the latest developments of the race. But in many cases, these pundits — though introduced as neutral experts on campaigns or party politics — in fact have financial ties to the candidates they praise on the air.
Several consultants who work at firms retained by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and her affiliated Super PACs appear regularly on the major television networks, frequently touting Clinton.
A review of pundits on the major networks and cable news also found one prominent pundit who often praised Jeb Bush, without the network revealing her relationship with his campaign.
“Journalism 101 teaches that reporters and TV news hosts must properly identify their sources and analysts,” says Jeff Cohen, an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College. We reached out to NBC, CBS, CNN, and ABC News, but did not hear back.
Stephanie Cutter, for example, has appeared on multiple networks to discuss Clinton, and is typically introduced as a former campaign official for President Barack Obama. What hasn’t been disclosed in any of her appearances reviewed by The Intercept, however, is that the boutique consulting firm she co-founded, Precision Strategies, has been retained by the Clinton campaign for “digital consulting,” according to Federal Election Commission records. Precision Strategies has been paid at least $120,049 from the Clinton campaign since June of last year.
“I think that Hillary Clinton has done everything right. She has run a good campaign. She has outperformed in debates. She’s raised money. She’s got a great ground game,” said Cutter, speaking about the upcoming New Hampshire and Iowa primaries on NBC’s Meet the Press on January 17. She was introduced as “President Obama’s 2012 deputy campaign manager.” Her company’s affiliation with the Clinton campaign was not disclosed.
That was the second time Cutter came on Meet the Press to discuss the campaign. Last June, again identified only as a former Obama campaign manager, Cutter said Clinton had “achieved what she needed to achieve, that she’s a fighter, that she’s going to restore that basic economic bargain.”
Speaking about the Democratic primary on ABC News’ This Week in November, Cutter was introduced as “a supporter of Hillary Clinton” — but still not as a consultant whose firm was being paid by the campaign. When Cutter appeared on CNN to discuss the political impact of the Benghazi committee hearings on Clinton, she was similarly introduced as a Democratic strategist, not as someone whose firm is working for the candidate. Precision Strategies did not respond to a request for comment.
Maria Cardona, a CNN contributor, has appeared on a regular basis over the course the presidential campaign as a reliable voice in support of Clinton. She is also a longtime partner at the Dewey Square Group, a lobbying firm with extensive ties to the Clinton campaign: Two Dewey Square partners serve as fundraisers for the Clinton campaign, each raising at least $100,000; both pro-Clinton Super PACs — Priorities USA Action and Correct the Record — have paid Dewey Square for consulting services during this election; and the co-founding partner of Dewey Square now serves as the chief administrative officer of the Clinton campaign. Notably, Cardona, a DNC “superdelegate” who pledged support for Clinton last year, before any of the primary elections, also contributed the maximum donation to Clinton’s campaign.
Those ties, however, were not revealed to CNN viewers even as Cardona defended Clinton’s use of a private email server, touted Clinton’s support from young voters, praised Clinton’s record on criminal justice reform, and — on two separate occasions — declared that Clinton will “fight for middle-class families.” She has also appeared frequently on the network to analyze the race between Bernie Sanders and Clinton, often castigating the Vermont senator. Cardona appears on CNN, CNN en Español, and CNN International.
The Intercept reviewed transcripts for 50 television segments, from August 2015 through this month, in which Cardona has appeared on CNN to discuss Clinton. In five of those appearances, she was identified or she identified herself as a supporter of Clinton. In another five, she identified herself as someone who advised Clinton during the 2008 campaign. The other 40 appearances presented her as a neutral Democratic strategist or CNN contributor. And in none of her appearances was it disclosed that her firm, the Dewey Square Group, has been retained for consulting work by the Clinton Super PACs or that her colleagues at the firm are working on behalf of the Clinton campaign. Cardona did not respond to a request for comment.
CNBC contributor Sara Fagen, a political operative, has appeared twice on ABC News’s This Week to discuss the state of Republican primaries. Both times, she touted Jeb Bush’s campaign, which ended last week after a long string of dismal failures. In her appearance last August, Fagen said Bush along with Ted Cruz are the only candidates “really focused on a 35-state strategy going forward.” In her second appearance, on November 1, Fagen spoke at length about Bush’s ability to recover from weak performances at the GOP debates, telling host Martha Raddatz: “Martha, he has the most money. He has the most organization. He has the most endorsements, and the thing that he’s had that no one on that stage has, is he’s been through the fire before. And that is incredibly valuable in the long run.”
Fagen also used her position with CNBC to praise Bush’s campaign and criticize his opponents in televised appearances and through a column she writes for the website. In September, Fagen used her CNBC column to predict the “beginning of the end” of Donald Trump’s leading position in the Republican field. In the piece, she argued that Trump’s downfall would likely benefit candidates like Bush, who had collected the most “endorsements from political leaders.” In two different CNBC columns this year, Fagen praised Bush’s debate performances. In one, published on February 8, Fagen said Bush could use the New Hampshire primary, even if he finished second or third, to “catapult into the GOP nomination” and “be a new comeback kid.”
Throughout her punditry over the last year, Fagen has been introduced or bylined as a “Republican strategist” and contributor to CNBC. But FEC records show that the Bush campaign paid Deep Root Analytics, a data-consulting firm co-founded by Fagen, $586,610 in 2015, starting in July. Right to Rise USA, the Bush-supporting Super PAC, paid Deep Root Analytics $273,001, with payments starting in August 2015 and continuing into January 2016. She has also been a “bundler” for the Bush campaign, a term used to describe a fundraiser who helps collect campaign checks.
Hari Sevugan is a principal at 270 Strategies, which was co-founded by Lynda Tran, a CBS News political contributor. 270 Strategies boasts on the homepage of its website of its extensive work for the Clinton campaign. “270 Strategies worked with the Ready for Hillary team to develop their organizing approach and provided guidance on their volunteer engagement program,” the website notes, detailing work on behalf of a pro-Clinton Super PAC that later folded into the larger Clinton campaign. FEC records show that Ready for Hillary paid 270 Strategies $301,621 for consulting work, and later, the Hillary for America campaign paid the firm at least $75,200.
That relationship, however, seems to have gone unmentioned as Sevugan and Tran regularly appeared on MSNBC and CBS News to comment on the Democratic primary. Sevugan went on MSNBC in February to drastically raise the expectations for Bernie Sanders’ campaign, declaring, “Anything short of a victory there in Iowa and New Hampshire is going to be a failure for them.” After the Iowa caucus, Tran made similar arguments, again diminishing Sanders’ surge by claiming that his come-from-behind near-tie was in fact a flop.
“It’s not just about outcomes, it’s also about expectations, and actually I think the expectations were pretty high for Bernie heading into Iowa last night,” Tran said. “What he really needed was to absolutely win.”
Sevugan’s and Tran’s financial ties to the Clinton campaign were not disclosed in these appearances and other similar segments throughout the primary race in recent months. In several segments, their affiliations with 270 Strategies were disclosed, but not the firm’s work for the Clinton campaign.
When I sent a request for comment to CBS News and 270 Strategies last week, neither responded — although a 270 Strategies communications official began following me on Twitter. On Saturday, when Tran appeared on CBS News to discuss the results of the Nevada caucus election, the host noted for the first time: “Before we start, we should disclose that several employees of 270 Strategies do some work for the Hillary Clinton campaign, however, Lynda, you do not.”