How Far Is Too Far for Cable News Contributors? No One Really Knows for Sure

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Amid a slew of firings, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC decline to open up about the standards that their paid, on-air contributors must adhere to.

There was no explanation for his firing as a cable news contributor, just a statement of fact: "Marc Lamont Hill is no longer under contract with CNN," the network said on Nov. 29.

Hill's departure wasn't a mystery. He attracted criticism for a speech he made one day earlier in defense of the Palestinian people that was decried as anti-Semitic. "The next day, CNN contacted me to let me know that they didn't feel that the speech was in line with their values," he told former MSNBC host Touré on a December podcast.

While unusually quick, Hill's forced exit was in line with how Jeff Zucker-led CNN has recently handled contributor controversy: by saying as little as possible and being opaque about the network's standards. (Hill did not respond to a request for comment.)

CNN's competitors, Fox News and MSNBC, have embraced a similar approach, applying unidentified standards when deciding if, when and how to cut ties with network contributors. Some remarks go unpunished while others end careers.

Kevin Jackson's tenure as a Fox News contributor was immediately in doubt when he called the women accusing then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct "lying skanks" on Twitter. When asked for comment at the time, a Fox News spokesperson initially responded: "Are you seriously writing about this while dismissing the major moments with [news anchor] Chris Wallace?" But four hours later, the spokesperson emailed back with a statement announcing that Jackson was terminated for his "reprehensible" remarks.

Jackson says he has no ill-will toward his former employer but believes the network caved to a pressure campaign meant to silence and censor conservatives. "Fox News has every right to do whatever they did to me," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I think Fox News did a disservice to themselves and to the consumer because I am one of the few voices out there who is truly looking to debate." The cable news network did "the easiest thing for them to do," he says, and enforced societal "rules" guarding speech that are malleable and always changing.

Had he changed one letter and called Kavanaugh's accusers "skunks," then "nobody would have complained," Jackson argues.

"The standards are entirely subjective," says former pro-Trump contributor Jeffrey Lord, who was fired in August 2017 for tweeting what CNN called a "Nazi salute."

Jonathan Klein, who ran CNN U.S. from 2004 to 2010, says that contributor terminations are inherently "subjective judgments" determined by the nature of the offense and the perceived value of the offender. "There are few well-defined lines other than criminal behavior, falsifying a story or using a beyond-the-pale term on the air," he adds.

While CNN fired pro-Trump contributor Ed Martin in January because of comments made on his outside radio show, fellow conservative commentators Ken Cuccinelli, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Rep. Jack Kingston have caught flak but escaped punishment for on-air remarks, raising questions about the network's line for discipline. Cuccinelli, the former Virginia state attorney general, told a female colleague to "shut up," while Santorum and Kingston drew backlash for comments made about student anti-gun activists that were perceived to be dismissive and conspiratorial.

MSNBC attracted criticism for firing and then re-hiring a contributor, Sam Seder, in December 2017 based on an 8-year-old tweet. But it has stuck by host Joy Reid, who apologized for old incendiary blog posts but also claimed without evidence that her website had been hacked.

Also in December 2017, the network pulled contributor Harold Ford off the air amid a report about possible sexual misconduct but never publicly addressed the former Democratic congressman's suspension or status again. (In a campaign donation made in August 2018, Ford identified his employer as NBC News.) Similarly, CNN suspended pro-Trump contributor Paris Dennard in August and only confirmed in December that "he is no longer with the network."

When asked by THR, the big three cable networks all passed on an opportunity to demystify their standards and policies for contributors.

A version of this story appears in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.