CNN bemoans a lack of civility after spending years hiring pro-Trump commentators

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

CNN has been on a civility kick. A transcript search shows that variations of the words were said over a hundred times on June 25 alone. One good example is the network’s June 25 highlight reel of allegedly incivil things that have recently been said by various people. As my colleague noted, the video conflated examples of liberals being mean with conservatives being racist:

CNN then brought on longtime centrist commentator David Gergen and pro-Trump whisperer Salena Zito to discuss the supposed decline in civility. Apparently no progressive voices were available.

Later in the day, when discussing Trump’s separation and detention of immigrant families with immigration lawyer David Leopold, CNN anchor Kate Bolduan interrupted Leopold and chided him for calling White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller a white nationalist, asking, “Where is the fact on that?”

Calling Miller a white nationalist is not some gratuitous insult. It is a simple, straight-forward analysis of his ideology. Splinter News’ Clio Chang aptly noted the evidence:

There is plenty of evidence that Stephen Miller, the architect of Donald Trump’s hard-line racist immigration policies, is a white nationalist. He crafted Trump’s Muslim ban. His thumbprint is smeared all over the administration’s family separation policy, the point of which is to tear immigrant families apart and deter others from entering the country. Miller reportedly laughed during a meeting when Trump made up names for immigrants and described imaginary crimes they might have committed. He has pushed for some of the harshest overhauls of our immigration system, including cutting legal immigration by half over the next decade. A White House aide recently told Vanity Fair Miller “actually enjoys” seeing pictures of children detained at the border: “He’s Waffen-SS,” the person said.

As journalist Chris Hooks also noted, Miller and white nationalist Richard Spencer worked together at Duke University to bring in white nationalist Peter Brimelow to speak about immigration. Spencer even told Mother Jones that he was glad no one was reporting on this connection:

“It’s funny no one’s picked up on the Stephen Miller connection,” Spencer says. “I knew him very well when I was at Duke. But I am kind of glad no one’s talked about this because I don’t want to harm Trump.”

This determined ignorance of the Trump team’s white nationalism is particularly galling since CNN has been profiting off of Trump’s team for years now. The network has hired a parade of pro-Trump analysts who, like the children at Willy Wonka’s factory, have been inevitably dropped as they become too toxic.

The hirings started during the 2016 campaign when Trump told CNN executives to hire Jeffrey Lord. Soon after, CNN programming was inundated with Lord, Corey Lewandowski, Kayleigh McEnany, and Scottie Nell Hughes. These hirings frequently raised ethical questions. Current Vox correspondent Carlos Maza examined the problem for Media Matters before the election:

As Maza noted, the presence of pro-Trump voices turned discussions into screaming matches more suited to reality television than to a news network. And like reality television, the names rotated in and out with the content staying the same.

Lewandowski resigned from CNN following the election (CNN refused to fire him even after reporting revealed the Trump campaign was still paying him). McEnany moved on to become the spokesperson of the Republican National Committee. Hughes left CNN before the inauguration. And most notably, CNN eventually fired Lord after he issued a Nazi salute on Twitter.

In their stead, CNN rolled in new pro-Trump voices. One of the first was former Trump senior communications adviser Jason Miller. By mid 2017, the channel’s paid Trump shills were flooding the network:

Media Matters’ senior fellow Matt Gertz noted in October 2017 how the network continued to flood its airwaves with bullshit:

[Ben] Ferguson, for example, has repeatedly been called out by his CNN colleagues this month for offering nonsensical diversions in discussions of Trump’s attacks on NFL players who protest racial inequality during the National Anthem. And [Stephen] Moore -- who typically appears on the network to lie about Trump-backed health care proposals -- on Monday derailed a CNN panel discussion about then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly paying a hefty sexual harassment settlement by saying that the real solution is for powerful men to never be alone in a room alone with a woman. [Jack] Kingston, for his part, last night attempted to make excuses for Trump’s unprecedented falsehoods, saying that “the American perception is that politicians lie” and Trump is no worse than other presidents; the rest of the panel denounced him, with anchor Don Lemon scolding him for “condoning bad behavior.”

When major stories break, such as Trump’s string of indefensible responses to the lethal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, Trump’s CNN supporters blanket the network’s coverage. That result was a trainwreck, with the president’s shills sidelining discussions with praise for Trump’s response and dismissals of the importance of the rally.

In September 2017, CNN hired Ed Martin, president of the Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund, ostensibly as Lord’s replacement. CNN was either ignorant or tolerant of the fact that Martin had previously called CNN “fake news” and had made flatly racist statements. In 2016, Martin told a crowd at a right-wing rally: “You're not racist if you don't like Mexicans. They're from a nation. If you don't think Muslims are vetted enough, because they blow things up, that's not racist.”

Martin predictably used his appearances to turn CNN into a trainwreck, while using his radio show to rail against the network:

  • Martin called on the air for a total end to immigration, saying, “Stop all immigration right now.” (11/2/17)

  • Martin argued that Leigh Corfman, the woman who reported that former Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore molested her as a child, should not be believed, saying, “What is this woman? She’s got multiple bankruptcies." (11/11/17)

  • Martin endorsed Moore and tried to get him elected even as CNN was doing great reporting on him. (11/7/17)

  • Martin said that Trump’s racist remarks about LaVar Ball, father of one of the basketball players arrested in China, could not be a “racial thing” because Trump also attacked Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). (11/20/17)

  • Martin defended Trump’s racist “Pocahontas” comment to World War II Navajo code talkers as “100 percent” appropriate. (11/27/17)

  • Martin contended that Trump’s racist anti-Muslim tweets were actually helpful because they were “starting a conversation.” (11/30/17)

  • After Roy Moore said that America was at its best during slavery, Martin argued that Jewish slaves had families: “When the Jews were in bondage for years, they still loved each other.” (12/11/17)

  • Martin called fellow CNN employees and co-panelists “black racists.” (12/14/17)

  • Martin praised Trump for ordering CNN’s chief White House correspondent out of the Oval Office, saying it was “amazing to see” and “really funny.” (1/18/18)

  • Martin gave an award to disgraced conservative operative James O’Keefe, who had on numerous occasions run deceitful stings against CNN. O’Keefe once attempted to lure then-CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau onto a boat full of sex paraphernalia. (1/12/18)

Martin stopped appearing on CNN after December 14 when Media Matters posted audio of Martin complaining about appearing on a panel with CNN commentators “who were just rabid feminists, actually racial, racists -- two of the women were racists, they were just were racists, black racists.” CNN eventually confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter on January 18 that Martin no longer worked for the network.

Martin’s role was soon taken by pro-Trump commentator Steve Cortes, who has said that he went to CNN “partly at the suggestion of the White House itself and the president himself.” Like Martin, Cortes also had previously called CNN “fake news.” During his time as a contributor at Fox News, Cortes had compared undocumented immigrants to violent thieves. And on CNN, Cortes has not only made similar statements, he’s also made laughably false and ridiculous claims. Michelle Wolf called out CNN’s charade with Cortes:

MICHELLE WOLF (HOST): Aw man, as a fan I just love this kind of TV magic. Watching the host act like the guest forced his way into the studio is so compelling, you almost forget that he was invited on and paid! Good job, Don, you knew full well Steve was going to lie and you gave a fun clip to share, and that's exactly why you invite him back all the time.

Here’s a brief history of things that paid CNN commentators have said on-air since the inauguration:

  • Stephen Moore made a completely false claim about coal jobs that an actual economist immediately corrected. (3/29/17)
  • Jason Miller made sexist remarks about Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), calling her “hysterical.” (6/13/17)
  • After Trump encouraged police brutality, Jeffrey Lord dismissed it as a “New Yorker sense of humor.” (7/31/17)
  • Lord called Trump “the Martin Luther King of health care.” CNN then talked about it for an entire day. (4/13/17)
  • Lord compared the Congressional Black Caucus to the KKK. (2/16/17)
  • Ben Ferguson criticized civil rights icon John Lewis for not educating Trump about civil rights. (12/8/17)
  • Rick Santorum said that Parkland school shooting survivors aren't taking personal responsibility and should learn CPR instead of engaging in activism. (3/25/18)
  • Kayleigh McEnany attacked Barack Obama for golfing in 2002 when George W. Bush was president. (3/28/17)
  • Ken Cuccinelli told panelist Symone Sanders to shut up while discussing white supremacists in Charlottesville. (8/14/17)
  • Paris Dennard posited that Trump was better than Obama at calling out white supremacists. (8/14/17)
  • Kayleigh McEnany defended Trump’s sexist remarks to an Irish reporter: “The press should be applauding the fact that he's bringing reporters into the Oval Office, calling them out and including them.” (6/28/17)
  • Rick Santorum attacked reporters for asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for details about North Korea and nuclear weapons. (6/14/18)
  • Miller dismissed reports that Trump had an affair with adult actor Stormy Daniels and paid her hush money because, according to him, the alleged payoff was nothing to a billionaire. (3/7/18)
  • Santorum accused Obama of exacerbating racism in America. (6/3/18)
  • After a suicide bombing killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert, Lord said that it would be fair for Trump to criticize Grande for not providing enough security. (6/5/17)
  • Lord used a Nazi analogy to attack London Mayor Sadiq Khan. (6/5/17)
  • Stephen Moore repeatedly lied about the Affordable Care Act, often without CNN fact-checking him. (7/17/17)
  • After Roy Moore was accused of child molestation, Stephen Moore argued that his opponent was “no saint either” because he supported abortion. (11/20/17)
  • Jack Kingston pushed a conspiracy theory that shadowy forces were behind the rally against gun violence organized by Parkland survivors. (2/20/18)
  • While discussing sexual harassment, Stephen Moore said that he would never take a one-on-one meeting with a woman. (10/23/17)
  • Jack Kingston said that Bill O'Reilly's racist remarks about Waters' hair were just like liberals calling Trump “orange.” (3/29/17)
  • Bryan Lanza argued that discussing sexual assault allegations against Trump “seems like a waste of time.” (12/20/17

And it’s not only the paid commentators who are a part of CNN's “false equivalency” problem. Just last week, after Lewandowski mocked a 10-year-old with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother at the U.S. border, CNN invited him on to talk more about his remark.

At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, Michelle Wolf called out this sycophantic relationship between the media and those in power. Wolf later told Vulture (emphasis original): “It was gross! Like, I saw [CNN President] Jeff Zucker hugging Kellyanne Conway, and it was just like, Oh! You’re all in this together! People are really getting hurt, and you guys are just celebrating your money. It’s all a game, nothing more than ‘How will we best profit off of this?’ It was icky.” Nevertheless, a CNN panel criticized Wolf’s jokes, with a CNN host saying that some of her jokes were “way too personal.”

America is not enduring a crisis of civility. America is enduring a crisis of facts, brought on largely by the rise of the filter bubble, with specious liars given credibility by feckless media and tech companies. It’d be nice if they were all at least a bit more self-aware about it.

Katie Sullivan contributed research to this post.