You know how in movies like Freaky Friday, 13 Going on 30, and Big, there are always those scenes where the main character has to learn how to be an adult? They go to an office, they don’t know how anything works, and they generally fumble through the day, ordering things like jelly beans and chocolate milk for lunch while spinning around on a swivel chair? Well, the difference between those scenes and CNN analyst Chris Cillizza’s career is that at least the children in the movies eventually learn to do their job with some level of competence.
Cillizza is, at best, an overpriced embarrassment CNN has chained itself to. He treats politics like a game played for his entertainment, rather than something that affects the lives of everyone in the country. His Twitter feed is a mess of played-out memes that make his reaction to any given event as predictable as a talking doll with a pull string. Though he’s treated as an expert on the American political establishment, his analysis comes with the naivete of a newborn child.
In short: Cillizza is bad, and his impeachment analysis shows just how bad.
On January 31, Cillizza wrote that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “pulled off a near-impossible impeachment feat” by managing to wrap up President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial without witnesses ahead of the State of the Union address on February 4. A week and a half earlier, in a January 21 blog post, Cillizza explained why he thought this would be such a difficult task for McConnell, citing polling showing public support for hearing from witnesses.
It’s a dewy-eyed understanding of politics to think McConnell would have either caved to public pressure or lost grip on his caucus. Looking back to 2016, when McConnell stonewalled Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, he faced a similar situation. Public support for holding Senate hearings on Garland’s nomination was overwhelming, and yet McConnell was able to keep Republicans in line. It’s utterly bizarre that any serious political analyst would conclude that McConnell “pulled off a near-impossible impeachment feat” by rallying his fellow GOP senators to buck public opinion once again.
On January 29, Cillizza wrapped himself in a “both sides” security blanket, tweeting a quote from his own article about that day’s impeachment hearing question-and-answer session: “Two sides deeply entrenched in their views and with zero interest in engaging the other side in any sort of thoughtful conversation or debate. So convinced of the rightness of their views that they don’t want to waste time by considering any others.”
“It was everything wrong with our politics,” he wrote in the CNN piece before lamenting, “There's no political body immune these days from the reflexive partisanship that has seized us all.” But by this point in the impeachment trial, it was clear that while one side was interested in discussing facts and actually making a case for removing Trump from office, the other was simply trying to run out the clock with conspiracy theories and absurd claims that the president was more or less untouchable. This kind of analysis tells us absolutely nothing about the merits of the arguments being made, which ones were based in fact, or what any of this meant in historical context. This was worse than worthless; it was detrimental to the public’s understanding of what was happening.
On January 14, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that the House would vote on sending articles of impeachment to the Senate, Cillizza determined that “Pelosi gambled and lost on the impeachment delay.” Predictably, Cillizza’s description of the events sounded more like a caller to a sports talk radio show complaining about a couch's decision than an effort to help people understand why the impeachment documents hadn’t been sent over in the first place.
Pelosi's goal was simple: To try to force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's hand. Pelosi wanted to use her possession of the articles of impeachment to yield promises and/or compromises from McConnell -- most notably on the issue of witnesses being allowed to be called in the Senate trial.
Except that McConnell wasn't playing ball.
Cillizza could have covered the fact that Pelosi and Democrats were concerned that McConnell and Republicans would hold a sham trial with the goal of acquitting Trump. He could’ve written about how broken the system is if one party can simply look the other way in the face of serious allegations against the president. Instead, he covered it as a game. Later that day, a bombshell of a story dropped about newly released documents related to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his fixer Lev Parnas. Had Pelosi sent the impeachment documents over immediately, as Cillizza suggested she would have been better off doing, it’s possible that the Senate would have barrelled through its trial before Parnas’ involvement in surveilling then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was revealed.
While most of Cillizza’s articles are poorly written and only as intellectually deep as a Dixie cup, one impeachment story stands out as particularly bad. Following the December 8 House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing, Cillizza churned out an article lamenting how difficult it was for him to do his job.
For just the third time in the country’s history, a sitting president was about to be impeached by the House of Representatives, but it wasn’t enough to entertain Cillizza. It was “unwatchable,” in his words. “A bunch of adults yelling at one another over matters that almost no one watching understood or cares about,” he wrote. That, right there, is his job. If people don’t understand or care about what’s being discussed, it’s his job to help them. Politics can be complicated, and it’s the job of journalists like Cillizza to explain the complications.
As Trump’s impeachment trial wrapped up in the Senate, and at a time when the public needed a competent press as much as ever, Cillizza’s articles did little to actually keep people up to speed with what was happening. Ahead of the final vote, Cillizza wrote a piece about Trump getting good news about his poll numbers, a story about how “we ain't seen nothing yet” when it comes to Trump’s outrageous antics post-acquittal, an article highlighting the obvious fact that Trump won’t ever take responsibility for his actions, and a loving ode to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT). In a smorgasbord of content, Cillizza’s position at the self-appointed “most trusted name in news” is little more than intellectual empty calories.
The press exists to inform the public. What role, exactly, does Cillizza play in that?
In a 2017 Reddit “ask me anything” session, one user asked Cillizza, “I’m curious as to whether or not you’ve spent time contemplating how your approach to journalism might be damaging to the public dialog,” citing an old quote in which Cillizza said that his job is not to assess “the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality.”
In his reply, Cillizza shirked responsibility by pointing out that some people simply won’t believe facts, no matter how many times they’re presented with information and clarifications. Other users in the thread highlighted the times when Cillizza was the one making factual mistakes and his tendency to draw false equivalencies, equally blaming and praising both political parties in order to keep a supposedly balanced perspective.
At its core, that’s the problem with Cillizza, especially in the Trump era. It’s not that he has changed -- he’s always been this terrible -- but that our politics changed around him. Our need to be entertained more than informed is what helped propel Trump to the presidency and Cillizza to one of the most visible positions in journalism. They’re both symptoms of larger problems in media and politics, embodiments of a reality TV world built around short attention spans. Cillizza’s shallow clips are made with the belief that people can digest information only if it’s presented as entertainment. His on-camera demeanor is often better suited for a post-screening discussion of an action movie than for a discussion about the future of democracy. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if he didn’t treat fluff commentary -- like the “news” that Trump has a habit of comparing his political enemies to dogs or the president's “199 wildest lines of 2019” -- as though it's as important as stories like the president’s impeachment for abuse of power.
The real shame of Cillizza’s success -- during a time when journalism is one of the only checks on power we have left -- is that there are so many talented, hard-working, fact-based journalists who’ve lost work in recent years. Columbia Journalism Review reported in December that 3,160 journalists were laid off in 2019. As we view Trump’s scandals and impeachment through Cillizza’s warped lens, it’s worth wondering how different things would be in our media and our democracy if news organizations rejected the sort of lighthearted hackery he peddles, instead of making it a highly sought commodity.
Chris Cillizza is a monument to our modern media, and that should worry us.