The good news for CNN was that a panel discussion Tuesday night featuring Donald Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord went viral and produced all kinds of media buzz. The bad news for CNN was that lots of people were mocking the segment and shaking their heads at the idea that Lord is employed by the network as a political analyst.
After months of watching Lord continually stretch the boundaries of good taste and common sense on CNN, observers were collectively gobsmacked that the news channel continues to give someone so “inane” a national platform.
The recent fury erupted when, doing his best to defend Trump from his racist suggestion that an American judge with “Mexican heritage” could not be impartial, Lord suggested it was Trump who was righting a wrong by attacking the judge. (Pretzel logic barely describes Lord’s attempted spin.)
As the general election season now unfolds, the CNN train wreck on Tuesday night likely represented a glimpse of what’s to come during the showdown between Trump and Hillary Clinton. And that’s why CNN ought to figure out what to do about its ongoing Jeffrey Lord problem as he quickly becomes the face of CNN’s campaign coverage.
As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias suggested on Twitter, “CNN really needs to reevaluate the news value of Jeffrey Lord.”
I’m sympathetic to the unique booking challenges a Trump campaign poses for a news channel like CNN. Traditionally during a White House run when seeking out balance, producers find a cadre of skilled media folks who can articulate or defend a candidate’s position and match them up with advocates from the other side. That’s done in the name of equality and it’s done in the hopes of producing entertaining debates.
But with Trump, large swaths of the conservative media complex are out of play for producers because in a historic move, so many Republican-friendly pundits refuse to endorse the Republican nominee or are actively rallying readers and viewers against him. So the pundit pool is much smaller this election cycle, which means choices for producers are limited.
And it’s not as if Lord’s reckless claims are going unchallenged on CNN. As The New Republic noted, eight different people Tuesday basically took turns telling Lord “he was an idiot” for defending Trump’s attack on the judge overseeing a Trump University lawsuit.
Some CNN pundits have made it clear that they’re not happy, or at least annoyed at having a national “debate” while being anchored down by someone like Lord who pushes baffling, nonsensical claims. “It really is just too much for me on an empty stomach in the morning, Jeffrey,” CNN’s Ana Navarro scolded Lord recently, after he compared Trump to Abraham Lincoln.
Towing around Lord during a panel debate is like have a sports car hitched to an RV; it’s really hard to get out of second and third gear. Why? His insistence on defending every indefensible Trump utterance.
Remember when Trump said he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and still no lose support among Republican primary voters? You get the sinking feeling that if Trump actually did gun someone down on the sidewalk, Lord would pop up on CNN defending the shooting.
This was the inevitable hurdle CNN faced last summer when it put Lord, a previously fringe media player who has pushed for Obama’s impeachment, on its payroll as a virtual hand-picked surrogate from Trump himself.
Media Matters instantly raised red flags about what the long-term implications would be for the news cable channel:
Lord has a history of pushing fringe rhetoric and misinformation. He engaged in a "profoundly ahistorical" crusade to deny the lynching of a black man, pushed bogus conspiracies about Democrats, compared his political opponents to Nazis and the KKK, and defended Donald Trump's anti-immigrant remarks.
CNN is first and foremost a news organization and its primary duty is to inform viewers. But I understand it wants to post healthy ratings and I’m guessing executives think Lord helps do that by generating buzz and outrage.
However, does anyone honestly think in an election year when viewers are flocking to cable news that CNN would take a substantial ratings hit if it no longer regularly featured in primetime a Trump fan who defends Trump's hesitancy to denounce white nationalists and regularly spouts tasteless rhetoric about racism in America?
I’m not advocating firing Lord. I don’t think pundits should be run off the air just because I disagree with them. And I certainly don’t think news channels should be punished if an on-staff pundit once or twice says something dopey and unsubstantiated on television.
But I do think that as Trump’s often offensive campaign drags on, it’s become increasingly clear that Lord’s insights and analysis don’t rise to the level of debate that CNN ought to be producing. And in fact, much of his commentary is becoming downright offensive and reckless. Meaning, does CNN want to cover the Trump campaign freak show, or does CNN want to help co-produce it?
Referencing Tuesday night’s Lord fiasco, Crooks and Liars' John Amato wrote of CNN, “This was an important, historic night in the history of the United States, and your coverage was hijacked by a paid partisan who is either consciously disruptive, or else is just plain crazy.”
The problem is that like Fox News did with Glenn Beck, CNN is in a way sponsoring the mainstreaming of some very toxic and utterly unsubstantiated rhetoric, along with indefensible misinformation via Lord (i.e. “The Ku Klux Klan is a leftist group”).
So CNN faces some choices: Does it want Lord to be the face of its election season, and is the entire point of campaign coverage to be noticed and generate debate, regardless of how debasing that conversation is? If that’s the goal, CNN and Lord are currently succeeding.