How do you solve a problem like Sean Duffy? The former Republican congressman, who was hired by CNN to blindly defend Donald Trump while the impeachment process unfolds, is creating problems for the network by constantly fabricating facts and spreading reckless and dangerous conspiracy theories. And yes, he’s only been on the CNN payroll for 10 days.
On Tuesday, Duffy questioned the patriotism of Purple Heart recipient and National Security Council official Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, after it was reported Vindman was telling House investigators damaging information about Trump’s open collusion with Ukraine and his attempt to get a foreign power to dig up dirt on the Republican’s political opponents.
At least twice yesterday, CNN anchors went on the air and directly denounced Duffy’s comments as a “smear” and an ugly form of “bigotry.” This is odd, yes? CNN pays Duffy for his commentary, which after just one week with the network is so out of bounds and so offensive that his cable news colleagues have to basically apologize to viewers for it. What’s the plan here, CNN?
Here’s the vise that the network finds itself in, and I understand that for executives there the solution seems extremely painful. But it really isn’t—not if you’re committed to being in the business of journalism. The conundrum is that CNN wants to position itself as occupying the center of American politics, which means CNN has to have lots of conservative voices to match the number of liberal voices, all so they can stage Both Sides debates. For decades, that has worked for the network. What no longer works is CNN hiring Trump sycophants like Duffy, because Trump sycophants like Duffy say crazy stuff nonstop.
During his CNN debut last week, Duffy lied about the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords. He lied about Joe Biden trying to fire a Ukraine prosecutor in order to protect his son. And Duffy helped spread the preposterous lie about the Democratic National Committee’s email servers from 2016 somehow ending up in a foreign country.
As I noted last week, It’s not up to CNN and other media players to hire bad actors like Duffy simply because the conservative movement is filled with so many bad actors. All news outlets ought to have easily identifiable standards, and if would-be paid contributors can’t meet those standards, they should not be hired.
The problem for CNN is that there are no longer any thoughtful or trustworthy Trump defenders.
That might sound extreme, but it’s simply the truth. Any conservatives and Republicans who still acknowledge reality have broken away from Trump’s orbit of support, leaving behind only cult-like followers, or those who pretend to be.
This means there is no off switch for people like Duffy who have downed gallons of the Trump Kool-Aid. He believes this stuff. He’s part of a disturbing conservative movement today that is utterly and completely detached from reality. That means when you hire an active member of that movement, such as Duffy, guess what? You’re hiring someone who is utterly and completely detached from reality.
Is that the brand CNN is going for? And is that the brand CNN is going for as impeachment gathers momentum and Trump’s presidency teeters on the brink? (Yes, i realize it’s also possible this is all done by design, in that CNN hires someone controversial and then basks in the attention he or she creates.)
Duffy didn’t run into a buzz saw this week because he misspoke or suddenly said something controversial. Duffy embarrassed CNN this week because he said precisely what’s on his mind. So of course, Duffy will continue to embarrass CNN in coming days, weeks, and months. And that’s what CNN producers and senior management now have to grapple with. Are they prepared, on a regular basis, to clean up after Duffy after he says something insulting and embarrassing on the air, or just makes stuff up about pressing issues of the day? On Tuesday, it was Duffy questioning the patriotism of a Purple Heart recipient. Who knows what it will be next week when yet another CNN anchor will be forced to carve out airtime to basically say “I’m sorry” to viewers for whatever nonsense Duffy was trafficking that day.
Last week, when pressed about the hiring of Duffy, CNN chief Jeff Zucker insisted it was all done in the name of diversity. “It’s my belief that we should represent out there what those who support Donald Trump think. … We need those voices and I think there’s a place for them.” He added: “I acknowledge there are people who disagree with me on that. I feel strongly that their point of view should be heard.”
So, Zucker “feels strongly” that paid CNN contributors be heard when they question the patriotism of Purple Heart recipients. Noted. By the way, this is the same thin argument Facebook executives are using to defend teaming up with the dishonest and racist site Breitbart News in the social media’s new news initiative: They’re just looking for a wide array of views!
If CNN executives were smart, they would nip this failed experiment in the bud. They’d part ways with Duffy, admit it did not work, and try to find a different conservative voice for the network’s Both Sides presentation. Because I can guarantee you, CNN’s Duffy problem is only going to get worse.
Why won’t CNN act? Because politically, cutting Duffy loose would spark mob-like attacks from the right-wing media, from Republicans, and likely from the White House, as the network would be condemned for its supposed “liberal media bias.” That’s not a fight Zucker and CNN want to have.
And remember: They’re paying Duffy to create this mess.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.