At the end of last week, Friday around noon to be exact, White House correspondent John Harwood left CNN in what seemed to be unceremonious fashion. Certainly when compared to the departure of Serena Williams from competitive tennis later that same evening there is no comparison.
Whatever the circumstances of Harwood’s exit, it raises two issues. One is about how news media outlets handle public relations and the second is how reporters should report the news when the effort to be objective and balanced denies audiences the truth.
CNN is on a path to steer its news coverage and programming back toward the place where the network began. The original mission to report the news from around the world 24 hours a day. The change comes under new ownership and under the leadership of Chris Licht, a Connecticut native.
Harwood’s leave comes after the recent departures of media analyst Brian Stelter and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and is seen by many media observers as part of a purge of talent viewed as too partisan or too anti-Trump.
While at CNN, Harwood’s reporting was often highly critical of the former president and that tone continued through his last report on Friday morning. In that final report he made clear that when one side in political debate is not telling the truth, it is not enough to give both sides equal time and call your reporting fair. You have to call out the falsehood. This is a position many reporters have taken on the role of objectivity going back to Edward R. Murrow.
Has CNN crossed the line during the Trump era into taking sides? Some will say yes, and some – like Harwood – will say CNN just told the truth and to paraphrase Harry Truman, “…it sounded like Hell.”
Which leads us to the second point about news media outlets and public relations.
Harwood has been a fixture of Washington, D.C. political journalism since the early 1990s. When it came time for him to leave CNN all the network could bring itself to say was:
“We appreciate John’s work covering the White House, and we wish him all the best.”
From a PR perspective, this amounts to the employer trying to have it both ways. The network chose not to praise his hard work and offered best wishes that can be described as pro forma and insincere. What is the point of such harsh treatment for a member of the CNN family? The terse statement is meant to protect CNN from legal backlash, but reflects poorly on both the employer and the employee and allows questions to hang over the issue of why Harwood left, or was let go.
This practice is common throughout the media industry and effects reporters at both the national and local level. It is un-necessary, it is not transparent, and it is harmful. It should stop.