CNN’s Sean Duffy problem

Sean Duffy

Sean Duffy, a former Republican member of Congress, is the latest shill for President Donald Trump to join CNN and immediately disgrace the network. That’s by design, the result of a deliberate policy mandated by the network’s top executives to hire and feature Trump supporters, knowing all the while that they will inevitably lie to CNN's audience.

On Tuesday morning, Duffy was brought on to discuss Army Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman’s pending congressional testimony before the House committees that are currently pursuing an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s abuse of power regarding Ukraine. Vindman, the top official handling Ukraine on the National Security Council, will testify that he was on the July phone call in which Trump urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to probe former Vice President Joe Biden, and that he viewed the call as improper and reported his concerns to the NSC’s top lawyer.

Vindman earned a Purple Heart while deployed in Iraq in 2003. He came to the United States as a Jewish refugee from Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) when he was 3 years old.

That latter point was the focus of Duffy’s criticism, as the newly minted CNN contributor and The Real World: Boston alumnus insinuated that the decorated active duty Army officer had turned on the president because he is a “former Ukrainian” who “wants to make sure that taxpayer money goes in military aid to the Ukraine.”

Anchor John Berman spent the next several minutes pushing back on and teasing out the implications of the smear, as his colleague repeatedly suggested that Vindman had prioritized his “homeland” of Ukraine over the United States. He later reaired the comments as an example of efforts by the president’s allies to “discredit” Vindman, referring to them as “a pretty shocking statement.”

Duffy’s smear has continued to drive CNN’s coverage of the impending Vindman testimony. 

Editor at large Chris Cillizza included Duffy’s comments, along with similar remarks from Fox hosts Brian Kilmeade and Laura Ingraham, in a piece denouncing the Vindman smear as “Awful. Appalling. Asinine.” 

Contributor Jeffrey Toobin added during a discussion of the comments on the following hour of CNN’s programming that “with all due respect to our new contributor,” Duffy’s smear amounted to “insanity and, frankly, anti-immigrant bigotry.” 

But Berman’s co-anchor Alisyn Camerota offered a different take. “I appreciate Sean Duffy's candor,” she replied to Toobin, “of how he sees all of this because we are hearing it on Fox TV and elsewhere and we’re going to be hearing it all day.”

That’s been CNN’s official line since the 2016 campaign, when the network responded to Trump’s political rise by hiring a stable of pro-Trump contributors to populate its omnipresent panel segments. Top network executive Jeff Zucker followed that path knowing that these hires would inevitably seek to mislead CNN’s audience. “Some of these folks are not very good with the facts,” he explained during an interview last year. “But that’s O.K. in the sense that it’s our job then to call them out.” 

The result of this policy has been twofold: nonstop misinformation that consistently sidetracks the network’s discussions, and a seemingly endless string of controversies, as Trumpists engage in bigoted commentary, become radioactive, lose their jobs, and are replaced  with new faces.

Duffy is already following that well-trod path, as the Vindman smear marks his second major controversy in two weeks. Duffy drew widespread criticism, including from his new colleagues, after he used his first two appearances as a CNN contributor last week to push the nonsensical claim that Ukraine is in possession of the Democratic National Committee server that Russian operatives hacked during the 2016 election. 

CNN can only expect more of the same going forward, as the former congressman has a long record of promoting conspiracy theories. But that’s what he’s there to do.