These are trying times at CNN. Despite high profile exits, Fox News is still chugging along as the cable news ratings behemoth, and MSNBC has leapfrogged the world news leader in the Era of Trump. The fabled center has been shrinking the entire 21st century, and that is part of why CNN is feeling the squeeze. People simply don’t read news that challenges their basic assumptions, which is why the partisan cable news networks are industry leaders. These figures from a little over a month ago are catastrophic.
Which makes sense once you actually watch CNN. Even though they have a litany of talented journalists like Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour, Pamela Brown and many others dotting their entire TV lineup, their efforts are completely betrayed by the unserious both-sidesism of CNN's executives. Sitting a sycophant lunatic like Jeffrey Lord across from any of these real journalists cuts into their own legitimacy—as Lord is not brought up to their level, but they are instead brought down to his by simply being forced to treat his Infowars-esque arguments as legitimate. By employing people who are better suited for Trump State TV like Kayleigh McEnany, CNN broadcasts their fraudulence for all to see.
This doesn't mean that CNN made a mistake in putting people sympathetic to Trump on TV. In fact, it would have been irresponsible not to represent that worldview in the wake of the most surprising election result in modern history. Trump was legitimately elected president, and we need to do a better job of understanding why. Talking to those who support him or who understand his supporters is the only way to begin that conversation. However, the Jeffrey Lord's and Kayleigh McEnany's that CNN put on air are not interested in enlightening us as to why we should support Trump, but instead prefer to castigate us for not strictly adhering to every syllable uttered by Dear Leader. As Anderson Cooper told Jeffrey Lord to his face, “if [Trump] took a dump on his desk, you'd defend him.”
So it should come as no surprise that Yashar Ali reported that “two prominent CNN anchors made it clear to management that Lord's tweet was an inexcusable red line.” The tweet in question that ended Lord's career at CNN is difficult to take at face value, and it just looks like he was being an unserious jerk.
There's pretty much no context outside a history report where it's OK to repeat the Nazi victory salute, and in a vacuum, this is clearly a fireable offense by Lord. But when you look at the full context behind the man's tenure on CNN, this is simply one fireable offense in a long line of them. Remember when Lord compared Trump's health care push to Martin Luther King Jr.'s fight for civil rights? The “sieg heil” douchebaggery is right in line with what CNN was paying for, but because it crossed the line between hinting at it and outright saying it, CNN's executives were backed into a corner by those at the network with fully functioning consciences.
I wish I could say that this is the end of the madness. That CNN axing Jeffrey Lord is the beginning of a change in behavior that will result in a better product from the network, and we'll see CNN begin to return to its glory days as the halcyon of journalism—but one look at their leadership reveals that those days are long gone. Jeff Zucker's background at NBC came in entertainment, and so that's what CNN hired him to do. Before the dust even began to settle on the Jeffrey Lord era at CNN, Zucker decided that he needed to address his bigot shortfall.
CNN is not primarily a news network. It is populated with newsmen and women trying to report the news, but the ultimate arbiters grade their performance by the ratings, and in hiring people like Lord and McEnany, Zucker and his cronies proved they’re pursuing an end-goal of entertainment. If they wanted to bring on folks to help their viewers understand Trump voters, there is an endless list of serious people that would accomplish that task. Here, I’ll toss a few examples out off the top of my head: Chris Arnande, Patrick Ruffini, and Logan Dobson. Ruffini and Dobson are conservatives who are not Trump supporters, but have the data and experience in the conservative world to understand his appeal. Arnande travels to the forgotten centers of America—specifically targeting counties that voted for Obama and Trump—to try to tell the tale of how we got here. The fact that no one of this shade was considered as the “Trump representative” on CNN’s broadcasts speaks volumes.
The executives at CNN want fireworks more than they want sober journalism. Which is a damn shame because Zucker inherited a network filled with serious journalists. But because all TV news is more about ensuring that you keep watching than it is about informing you, Zucker can get away with filling his lineup with lackeys whose central purpose is to create conflict on live TV. It’s the exact same premise as filling out a reality show lineup. You don’t want all of them to be crazy, because then it’s just chaos, but if you don’t have at least a few unhinged characters on the show, the entertainment value dwindles. Which is a fine ethos to follow when creating harmless amusement, but Zucker isn’t at NBC anymore. He’s running the Cable News Network. Given the talent that Jeff Zucker has on hand, imagine what he could create if he actually committed to what CNN stands for, instead of trying to merge a reality show with the news.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.