CNN’s political news reporters have found themselves in a bizarre, murky position: One of their newest colleagues may very likely run for president.
Before and since joining CNN a month ago as a paid on-air contributor, John Kasich has made no secret that he could run for president again. In fact, ever since the 2016 election, a consistent feature of political coverage has been headlines about the Republican ex-governor of Ohio “mulling” or “considering” a primary or third-party challenge against President Trump.
And when he appears on CNN, he sounds like he’s on the stump.
Often asked to react to other candidates’ presidential aspirations and campaign moves, Kasich falls back on the messaging he tried out as a GOP primary candidate in 2016.
“You must communicate to people in this country that we understand your struggles: health care, the fact that you’re not getting ahead with your income, the fact that your kind can’t get a job,” Kasich said on CNN last month. “That’s what people I believe want to hear. And we’ll see who can articulate that.”
Media critics knocked CNN for signing Kasich knowing he may still run for president, saying the network is effectively giving him a paid platform to build momentum for a future campaign.
“I do believe CNN runs an ethical risk paying a potential candidate,” Steven Roberts, a professor of media ethics at George Washington University, told The Daily Beast. “The mixture of journalists/pundits/consultants/political operatives on CNN and other platforms is already confusing enough to viewers. Adding potential candidates as paid contributors crosses a line into chaos.”
Last week, the media news site Contemptor (whose founder often writes for The Daily Beast) asked whether Kasich’s CNN job could be considered “an in-kind donation on FEC reports.”
And while CNN reporters and anchors have not expressed dismay over the potential conflict of interest, they have made it a point to disclose Kasich’s ambitions during otherwise news-of-the-day interviews.
In late January, for instance, At This Hour anchor Kate Bolduan flatly asked Kasich if he was running for president. The ex-governor replied that he has “not closed the door on anything.”
“All my options are on the table and I’m not prepared to make a decision,” Kasich said.
Several weeks later, Bolduan once again asked Kasich whether he’ll make a 2020 run. He dodged the question, instead giving a non-answer about the power of using Instagram to connect with people.
It has become the norm in political media that, every two years, many politicians who’ve left office or lost in a recent election are then scooped up by TV news networks for contributor gigs.
For most politicians, a cable news punditry gig signals the end of the lawmaking road. For example, upon signing on to be a CBS News commentator, former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) announced he would not attempt to run for president.
It wouldn’t be the first time a potential presidential candidate mulled their candidacy on cable television. And networks typically cut ties as soon as those aspirations become ethically untenable. Mike Huckabee was forced to end his Fox News show after announcing he was exploring a presidential bid. Similarly, in 2016, Fox suspended Newt Gingrich’s contributorship amid rampant speculation he was being considered by Trump as his vice presidential nominee.
But, generally speaking, TV news executives don’t seem bothered by the potential ethical dilemma posed by hiring possible presidential aspirants.
Kasich met about a potential job last year with multiple cable networks, including CNN and MSNBC. Higher-ups at those two networks told The Daily Beast they were not irked by Kasich’s potential flirtation with a bid for higher office while providing paid political punditry.
One person familiar with the process of signing Kasich said there didn’t seem to be much concern that his presidential ambitions could interfere with his role at the network. “It was no secret, so it didn’t seem like there was a problem with it,” one CNN insider said.
And members of Kasich’s camp claim the CNN job is not preparation for a bid.
His desire for the job, they said, was simple: He enjoys discussing politics, and he remains seriously unsure about his 2020 aspirations. Several pointed out that as a political strategy, signing with CNN might not have been the wisest choice because exclusivity with CNN meant means limited media appearances elsewhere and therefore a smaller overall audience.
“I suspect the governor is in front of fewer potential voters with the gig at CNN, given he's no longer on all the networks/cable each week,” Kasich adviser John Weaver said.
“If he decides to run for president, he will obviously so inform CNN and resign from his contract. But in the meantime, he will be the call-them-as-he-sees-him person he's always been.”
A spokesperson for Kasich reaffirmed that the former governor hadn’t made up his mind about running. And he didn’t find it strange that even Kasich’s new CNN colleagues are asking about it.
“Almost every interview he’s done over the past few years ends with a question of whether or not he will run again—so that question is quite typical,” the spokesperson said.
“And his answer is no different whether he’s been a guest on CNN, CBS, FOX, ABC, NBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, or MSNBC.”