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Is “Quiet Suspending” All That Uncommon in Cable News?
CNN's silent punishment of Mary Katharine Ham was cheap and cowardly, but not entirely unique.
Last week, conservative CNN commentator Mary Katharine Ham sent out a revealing newsletter to her Substack subscribers (of which I am one). She talked about her almost year-long absence from the network, and explained that, up until just a few months ago, she was just as mystified as her fans were as to why she’d been pulled off television.
In July, she finally learned that she was being punished for tweeting about scant internal coverage of former CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin’s infamous masturbation incident during a Zoom meeting with network colleagues. That punishment originated from former CNN president Jeff Zucker, just a few weeks prior to him leaving the network.
Regarding Toobin, Ham was eventually told that “everyone [at the network] wanted a bit of a breather.”
Well, everyone but me, who had no idea there was a breather in effect. I was never informed of my punishment until it was rescinded recently by new management. No one called me or my representation about it. There was no announcement of a suspension, or notification of in-house disciplinary action, which I would have preferred, even welcomed by comparison to serving a secret sentence.
Ham goes on to compare her suspension with that of Jeffrey Toobin’s:
One month was the difference between punishment for jacking off at work versus commenting on the inadvisability of jacking off at work.
Why had no one told Ham over those first six months that she was, in fact, suspended? If you believe the long delayed explanation, it was because she’d “just had a baby” and might be a "loose cannon."
As Ham points out, it’s especially amazing that such events would go down as they did, in a corporate media environment, in the #MeToo era. Ham says new CNN management is working on getting her back into the mix, but she felt compelled to first go public with her story, rather than pretend it didn’t happen.
I’m glad she did. It took a lot of courage, and it’s good the incident is getting some good attention.
But there are a handful of things that have been irking me a little about that attention, and they have to do with where the story is being picked up, where it isn’t, and where the finger-wagging is coming from.
A quick Google News search makes it clear that mostly right-wing outlets think Ham’s story is at all newsworthy. This isn’t particularly surprising, but it is kind of discouraging. One would hope such treatment of a major news-network contributor would transcend political ideologies.
And with CNN currently going through a high-profile rebranding phase to try and restore some objectivity and credibility to its brand, one would hope they’d recognize an opportunity to speak out about what happened, publicly acknowledge the wrongdoing, and commit to doing better. Maybe they will.
Then, there’s the aforementioned finger-wagging, like this:
Again, to be clear, I agree with all of those (including the folks in the tweets above) who think what happened to Ham was disgraceful… even if, as I assume, what CNN did to her was well within the network’s legal and contractual rights.
I just think it’s also bad when other networks serve out secret punishments, including the network that employs both Kurtz and Pavlich: Fox News.
Maybe it’s the nature of what Toobin did that makes Ham’s months-long “quiet suspension” over her comments seem particularly egregious. Or maybe it’s the lame excuse that she’d just had a baby (if they’re even telling the truth about their thinking in that regard).
But the “quiet suspension” stuff doesn’t seem like anything new. Case in point, a number of Fox News contributors, who also happen to be conservatives, were met with it over the last five years or so. It wasn’t because they publicly spoke out about a colleague, or because they did anything unprofessional or unethical, but rather because they put forth blunt, unflattering, equally honest commentary about another individual: Donald Trump.
Erick Erickson, an outspoken Trump critic at the beginning of the Trump era, was pulled from Fox programming for months, without a direct explanation from the network, until his contract ran out at the end of 2017.
Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg, conservatives who also weren’t shy about criticizing Trump on-air, went from frequent Special Report panelists to having their network appearances scaled back to almost nothing. Though they remained under contract for a few more years, the two sometimes weren’t invited on Fox for months at a time. They eventually asked for their releases over the network green-lighting Tucker Carlson’s January 6 conspiracy special.
The worst shafting may have been to Chris Stirewalt, who, by all accounts, is extraordinarily knowledgeable on politics, and was a beloved and valued member of the Fox family. He was permanently yanked off the air, apparently just for being the face of the network’s election team that correctly called Arizona for Biden in the 2020 election. Fox viewers wanted blood for the perceived betrayal, and Stirewalt became the sacrificial lamb. (For what it’s worth, Fox claims that Stirewalt’s ousting was part of a realignment of “its business and reporting structure to meet the demands of this new era.” Real convincing, huh?).
As you’d probably guess, the individual and situation I’m most familiar with was Bernie Goldberg. Fox shelved him for 11 months without explanation, and played dumb when he’d ask for one (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t due to postpartum concerns). The wall of silence remained in place until his contract ran out, and his ten-year run with the network came to an end. Bernie was happy to leave by then (and hasn’t looked back), but it still amazes me that a channel that can barely go five minutes without lamenting “liberal bias” permanently sidelined their exclusive contributor who literally wrote the definitive book on the topic… all because he also spoke honestly and bluntly about Trump.
Again, I doubt either network did anything legally out-of-bounds to these individuals. I can’t imagine any cable-news contributor or editor has an on-air-appearance minimum in their contract, nor are they owed a job. But the powers that be in these cases indeed acted like cowards and creeps. If you’re going to punish an employee for something they said, you should at least have the integrity to tell him or her what it was. If you can’t bring yourself to do so, maybe it’s because you’re being petty or gross, and you shouldn’t be punishing that person in the first place.
Of course, I get why such talk would be avoided. It’s a cut-throat business, there are liability concerns, and everyone’s looking out for their own interests.
I’m just saying that if we’re going to talk about silently punishing media-personalities for voicing views that executives don’t want spoken under their umbrella, there are lots of dirty hands, and a much broader discussion to be had.
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