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Was it wrong for CNN's Paul Begala to ask me to give Al Franken money?

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Maybe it's just me, but a fundraising letter I received from CNN's Paul Begala last week struck me as emblematic of what's wrong when media are mixed with money and politics -- as they increasingly are these days at cable TV news channels in Washington.

Here's the letter. And you tell me if this is appropriate for someone listed as "commentator" at CNN -- someone who also appears on the channel's website under the heading "Anchors/Reporters" as Begala does in the screenshot above. (See it here.)

To me it compromises and cheapens CNN's journalistic brand when someone like Begala uses the channel's airwaves and website to trash the Tea Party and then tries to raise money for political candidates off the negative perception of the Tea Party he used CNN to help create. 

(You can see a CNN video at the end of this post of Begala calling Tea Party members "lunatics.")

Dear David,

I've been in politics a long time. But I have to tell you -- the shenanigans coming from the extreme Tea Partiers in Washington D.C. defy all logic.

But I'm not writing today to rant about the Tea Party. I'm writing because Al Franken needs our support this month.

Al is one of the truly progressive senators in Congress. He stands up to the extreme right all the time. He knows that it's his job to work for middle class families -- and he’s doing great work.

Al's trying to raise $150,000 this month to boost his grassroots network, and he's only got until midnight on Thursday to get there. Can you chip in $5 or more to help?


Here's how this works -- Al stands up to the Tea Party and special interests that try to dominate Washington. Immediately, he becomes a target. And the right-wing swoops into Minnesota to try and knock him out.

If the shutdown didn't convince you that we all have to fight to keep progressives like Al in the Senate, I don't know what will. Al's campaign doesn't run on million-dollar checks. The only thing that stands between Al and the special interest attacks are grassroots supporters like you.

Give $5 or whatever you can to get Al to his $150,000 October goal before time runs out.

Thanks for helping me help Al this month.

Paul Begala

CNN confirmed that the letter was from Begala and sent this statement of response to my inquiries about it: "CNN has policies in place for its strategists and commentators regarding their outside professional activities, and the network is comfortable with those policies."

A spokeswoman added that Begala said he did not receive any money for writing the letter on behalf of Franken. I will trust CNN on that, though I obviously cannot verify it.

Again, maybe I am just not socialized enough to the increasingly slippery mores of Washington and cable news TV news these days.

But I've been writing about media 30 years and teaching media ethics for the past 15 years, and even I am confused when at 6:30 p.m. some weeknights, I go from Wolf Blitzer and the "Situation Room" onscreen to Stephanie Cutter and "Crossfire."

I know Blitzer's a journalist, but Cutter's a former Obama adviser who is still occasionally advising the White House on how to spin stories and try to manipulate the press. She's also a lobbyist for Bank of America.

But there she is sitting in the middle of my screen on a CNN set just like Blitzer was moments before.

Is 6:30 the time when CNN switches from journalism to anything goes?

I know Begala has been playing several sides of the streets this way for a long time. But being grandfathered into something that's wrong doesn't make it right.

I want to be absolutely clear. What I am saying is that it's wrong for CNN to let its contributors behave this way. I'm not saying the behavior is in and of itself necessarily wrong. Being political is what Begala does -- always has done as far as I know. But a cable channel known as the news network should not be letting him do it as long as he takes $1 from them.

The fact that he is listed under anchors/reporters indicates how blurred the line between journalists and paid consultants working for politicians has become at CNN. And CNN is the channel I described several months ago as the last best hope for TV journalism.

Can I take it back?

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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