Yesterday, CNN suspended correspondent Elise Labott for two weeks over a single sentence.
Earlier in the day, Labott had tweeted out a link to a CNN story about a House vote on the Syrian refugee issue, but she made the mistake of spicing the tweet up with a dash of her own despair:
Soon thereafter, Erik Wemple reported the suspension, and once word got around, the Twitter indignation came in waves:
“Despair is a reasonable reaction to an opportunistic vote!” wrote TNR’s Alex Shephard. “But apparently not on Twitter.”
But that’s the thing: If you’re a CNN correspondent, despair — or any other emotion — is not a reasonable reaction to a partisan issue. CNN’s correspondents aren’t supposed to show any signs they favor one side of a debate over another. Over the years, various people have argued in various ways that this old-school approach to news reporting is outdated or dumb or unrealistic, but at CNN it still prevails, and Labott agreed to abide by it. She didn’t get suspended because the network was mad she expressed concern for refugees; she got suspended because she expressed an opinion on a partisan issue, which is something her job explicitly prohibits.
People keep connecting this incident to Don Lemon’s ridiculous segment with Reza Aslan in which Lemon sidestepped Aslan’s attempt at a nuanced conversation to ask Donald Trump–level questions about Islam. This connection is understandable — Oh, you can express an opinion when you’re bashing Muslims, but not defending their right to flee from terror?
But Lemon really does have a different sort of job than Labott. As Wemple explained, “CNN strives for a tricky balance in its news programming. It wants spicy, watchable coverage enlivened by perspectives and opinions — but no partisan biases from its corps of reporters and anchors.” Lemon, therefore, is “licensed to express opinions on air on the condition that they’re not ’predictably partisan.’”
In other words, Lemon’s role is a bit more personality driven, and he has to regularly interview people of various ideological stripes on the air in a way that will be entertaining. Therefore, he has more leeway to push guests in a somewhat opinionated manner — as long as he’s “unpredictable” about it. Labott’s job, on the other hand, is of the more traditional news-gathering variety. She really can’t express opinions.
If you think these distinctions are a bit silly and arbitrary and might prevent journalists from doing their jobs well in certain situations, you’re not alone, and there are some arguably good reasons this model of reporting has been slowly dying out in the internet era. But the point is that everyone who works at CNN knows the deal, and that when you set aside the understandably passionate debate over the refugees, it’s not even a very close call. Labott clearly broke an agreement she had with her employer.
So she’ll be back at CNN in two weeks, playing it straight down the middle. In the meantime, Lemon will continue to keep us guessing with his “unpredictable” interviews.