/The Toughest Job in Journalism Is Defending Trump on CNN

The Toughest Job in Journalism Is Defending Trump on CNN

Sean Duffy

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Fourth Estate

Sean Duffy is surely next in the network’s long line of disappeared surrogates for the president.

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

“Congratulations for joining the CNN family,” State of the Union anchor Jake Tapper said on-air to former Republican member of the House of Representative Sean Duffy on October 20, as the congressman commenced his duties as one of the network’s paid contributors expected to defend President Donald Trump. Tapper’s welcome was heartfelt. But had Tapper placed honesty in front of manners, he would have warned Duffy that he just had volunteered for a mission—defending Trumpism on CNN—that’s more perilous than taking the beach at Normandy.

CNN’s paid Trump defenders—more on them in a minute—have a tendency to self-destruct either by word or deed in short order, making a public warning the decent thing to do. Unwarned, Duffy used his CNN position to advance Trump’s spurious position that Ukrainians have possession of the Democratic National Committee’s server, which is “at the heart of the Russia investigation.”

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But Duffy didn’t actually commit media seppuku until Tuesday when he went on CNN to question the patriotism of Ukrainian-born Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the White House insider who had just wounded Trump with testimony in the House’s impeachment inquiry.

“It seems very clear that [Vindman] is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense. I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy,” said Duffy, accusing the decorated officer of dual loyalty. “We all have an affinity to our homeland, where we came from.”

Kablooey!!! Immediate pushback came from inside CNN. Anchor John Berman asked if Duffy was saying Vindman wasn’t looking out for America first. “I don’t know,” Duffy said. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, CNN afternoon anchor Brianna Keilar and CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza took more shots at Duffy, accusing him of anti-immigrant bigotry, as did the rest of the media universe.

There’s an amply documented pattern of Trump’s paid TV surrogates setting themselves on fire or slowly ghosting from CNN’s airwaves. The president’s original Tokyo Rose, Jeffery Lord, was sacked in August 2017 for tweeting the phrase “Sieg Heil!” at Media Matter’s front-man Angelo Carusone. After Lord came Ed Martin, a St. Louis talk-show host and Trump loyalist who lost his CNN contract in January 2018 after calling fellow CNN contributors “black racists” and “rabid feminists.” Other short-termers on CNN’s pro-Trump beat include Jason Miller, his former campaign communications director, and Paris Dennard, both of whom left the network in 2018. In early 2019, CNN dumped another pair from its payroll—former officeholders Jack Kingston and Andre Bauer—and later that year parted ways with Trump campaign and transition veteran Bryan Lanza. The Hollywood Reporter noted in August that Steve Cortes and Ben Ferguson, Trump’s latest media spear carriers, had all but disappeared from CNN.

CNN plagues us with its endless series of Trump surrogates because the casting of the news requires proper “villains” to parry with the “heroes.” Or as CNN President Jeff Zucker put it, “You can’t run a news channel and you can’t do a show if you don’t talk to all sides.” That sounds like a sensible explanation, but it doesn’t go to the heart of the matter. The network could interview Trump supporters without putting them on the payroll. It just wouldn’t be as dramatic.

What makes being Trump media surrogate such a high-attrition job is that that position must be filled by somebody close to the president who is willing to repeat, amplify and explain the racist, insulting, inflammatory and conspiratorial things the president says on a daily basis. The surrogate is hired to channel all of Trump’s awfulness. Once Trump attacked Lt. Col. Vindman on Twitter, Duffy had no real alternative as a paid Trump supporter but to parrot the president. So he went on air and squawked. He did his job.

If Duffy gets fired (really, I should say, “When Duffy gets fired”), it will probably be for seconding something outrageous Trump uttered. Although it’s totally unfair, the network will kill the messenger for delivering the message they paid him to deliver, and then it will hire a new messenger and eventually fire him, too. And so on.

The surrogates are scapegoats. CNN fires them because it can’t fire the president.

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Is anybody on TV more Cronkitesque than Jake Tapper? Suggest candidates via email to [email protected]. My email alerts think they’re Huntley and Brinkley. My Twitter feed thanks it’s Arnold Zenker. My RSS feed is still on hiatus.

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