CNN’s Controversial Hiring of Sean Duffy Is Not Just Good Television. It’s Good For the National Discourse.

 

Two weeks ago CNN announced the addition of former Republican Congressman Sean Duffy to their stable of contributors. Judged by the amount of coverage CNN has received in the first handful of Duffy’s appearances, it’s clear he’s made a splash.

The most recent mess splash: Duffy sought to undermine Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, when he noted the official’s “affinity for Ukraine,” suggesting his national loyalties lie elsewhere — despite the U.S. military uniform Vindman still wears.

Though Duffy claimed in a brief interview with me that he meant not “to undermine his service,” that was missed by his CNN colleague Brianna Keilar, who pounced on Duffy’s comments in a remarkably personal manner. After playing the clip of Duffy making the remarks on CNN’s New Day, Keilar hit hard:

“That is some anti-immigrant bigotry and it’s an odd questioning of patriotism coming from Sean Duffy, the guy who spent part of his 20s on MTV’s The Real World and the Real World – Road Rules Challenge while Alexander Vindman spent his years in foreign deployments, including one to Iraq where he was awarded a Purple Heart after he was injured by a roadside bomb.”

Keilar’s piqued commentary was unusual for a network not accustomed to airing intra-network squabbles publicly, but her criticisms were fair, and a good illustration of the journalistic independence afforded to staff at CNN.

Duffy’s hire at the network was controversial from the get-go, but is it all bad? I, for one, think not. Duffy’s addition has been an overall positive for a network that differentiates itself from competitors by seeking a dialogue that is sometimes quite contentious, but profoundly important for the national dialogue at a time of such extreme polarization.

***

The addition of a vocal pro-Trump voice to CNN is always received with harsh criticism, and Duffy’s addition was condemned by those on the left who see Duffy as an eager parroter of the baseless claims and debunked conspiracy theories touted by the president. Duffy has frequently appeared on Fox News over the past few years where his wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, is employed as a contributor and frequent guest host for opinion programs.

Duffy is a former reality show participant (MTV’s Real World: Boston) and spent ten years as a prosecutor before he was elected to Congress in 2011. He’s smart and has accomplished much since his reality television days, but on Fox News, his amplification of White House talking points were rarely, if ever, challenged. Which is the very context by which Duffy’s addition to CNN has been so negatively adjudged.

The New Republic asked why “CNN would hire a moron like Sean Duffy?” Duffy was also called, by various prominent blue checked Twitter accounts a ‘”liar,” “conspiracy theorist” and “Trump stooge.” The criticism is not unfounded.

Duffy is guilty of pushing many of the very same conspiracies and falsehoods that have come to define Trump’s counterattacking media strategy. DNC Server in Ukraine? Duffy wants to know where it is. “Transcript” of alleged quid pro quo phone call? Duffy says it’s exact and shows no wrongdoing. Remember Uranium One? Duffy has thoughts he’d like to share.

But what viewers have witnessed on CNN since Duffy joined is the network consistently holding him to account when he promotes falsehoods. This is best illustrated by CNN New Day co-anchor John Berman, who has hosted a few spirited debates between Duffy and fellow former GOP Rep. Charlie Dent (who does not share Duffy’s admiration for Trump.)

When Duffy mentioned Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s Ukrainian roots, Berman immediately jumped in and challenged his guest to explain why that was relevant. When Duffy falsely claimed that Bill Taylor’s testimony was leaked, Berman quickly pointed out that the source material being debated was from publicly released opening statement. And later in that very segment, Dent referred to Duffy’s nose as a “heat-seeking missile for the President’s backside.” Ouch.

Even fellow Republican (and self-described Never Trump) CNN host S.E. Cupp challenged Duffy to defend the president referring to his GOP opponents as “human scum.” Duffy was forced to admit, in all his Wisconsin charm, that no, he would not call her that, putting Trump’s reckless and divisive rhetoric in stark relief.

***

A skeptic might say that “great cable news programming” is an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp,” but Duffy’s addition to CNN truly has made for compelling and immediately viral cable news segments. His path to CNN is worth considering.

Duffy announced his plans to step down from Congress in an August post on Facebook, citing health concerns for a newborn baby:

“With much prayer, I have decided that this is the right time for me to take a break from public service in order to be the support my wife, baby and family need right now,” Duffy says. “It is not an easy decision – because I truly love being your Congressman – but it is the right decision for my family, which is my first love and responsibility.”

After a short break from the fray, Duffy began to entertain queries about where he might land. In many ways, he’s is a cable news programmer’s dream. It may be shallow to admit, but television is a visual medium, and Duffy’s telegenic and charming demeanor combined with his fluency on political issues add up to make him a natural. His status as a pro-Trump Republican, however, narrowed his options.

According to sources familiar with his discussions at Fox News, talks never went seriously past radio work and occasional guest appearances. Duffy’s presence at Fox News would likely get lost in a sea of contributors who not only have a similar point of view, but also the comfort and experience of being regulars on certain shows.

MSNBC rarely features pro-Trump Republicans (more on that later), so CNN was a natural fit. When asked by Mediaite why he opted for CNN, Duffy touted the fairness and respect he always felt the network afforded him (though that comment was notably provided before Brianna Keilar’s segment.)

“I’ve done a lot of CNN hits as a member of Congress and especially the run-up to the 2016 election, and have always been treated fairly,” Duffy said, adding “there is a huge audience that I think I can bring a voice to for a Midwestern, conservative perspective. So it made the most sense to me to match up with CNN.”

Pro-Trump Republicans that are willing to appear regularly are not just increasingly rare on CNN but seem to be something of a dying breed. There is an ever-expanding graveyard of former contributors that were once regularly featured — think Jeffrey Lord,  Steve Cortes and Paris Denard — who all disappeared from CNN programs for one reason or another. When asked if he was concerned about suffering the same fate, Duffy was optimistic.

“Contributors and networks always come and go,” Duffy said, adding that he had a look at “Rick Santorum or Mia Love or even Charlie Dent, who I don’t always agree with but they’ve found a really positive home at CNN.” From Duffy’s perspective, he was “always treated fairly and respectfully and always asked back. So I have no belief that I would be treated differently as a contributor, so it was my prior experience with the network that made me feel like this was the right home for me.”

While Mia Love’s support of Trump is muted, Santorum is a consistent defender of the White House. CNN also employs Trump campaign adviser David Urban, conservative commentator Scott Jennings and former Trump administration official Keven Haslett.

Rebecca Kutler, the vice president of content development and contributors for CNN, and the person responsible for hiring Duffy, explained to Mediaite the value she sees in his contributions, noting “Sean is a great addition to our stable.”

‘We’re about to go into the 2020 election, so anyone who is doing my job looks at that and thinks do we have the best voices to build CNN,’ Kutler said.  “He was elected five times in one of the most important battleground states, Wisconsin, for 2020. So he understands Wisconsin voters, he understands Republican voters. He understands the current dynamics on Capitol Hill inside the GOP caucus.”

CNN President Jeff Zucker presented a similar case last week at CNN’s Citizen forum in lower Manhattan.

“It’s my view that if we don’t hear from people who support the president, either in his administration or on Capitol Hill or outside of the administration, if we don’t pay attention to those people and what they’re saying and what they’re representing, then I think what happens is we wake up the day after the election and half the country is surprised that President Trump is the president of the United States,” he said.

“People ask, ‘Why do you pay people to come on and support him?’ That’s what you’re referring to. The latest one is five-term congressman Sean Duffy out of Wisconsin, who we just added to our roster of Trump voices on CNN. I get a lot of criticism from folks who wanna know, ‘Why do you pay people to come on and talk in support of the president,’” Zucker said. “It’s my belief that we should represent out there what those who support Donald Trump think. Now they say, ‘We’ll just have them come on as a guest and don’t pay them.’ Look, it is hard… It is hard to find people who will come on and support the president’s point of view.”

When asked about CNN hosts and anchors pushing back on Duffy’s comments, Kutler echoed Zucker’s sentiment.

“Those conversations have been great for the shows that they’ve been on, I think they’ve been a great addition to CNN,” she said. “Look, we can’t be afraid to listen. I think around, you’d have to check the number, but I think about 40% of the country supports President Trump, and it will be journalistic malpractice to pretend that such a large part of the country doesn’t exist. So a voice like Sean’s is really important in bringing that point of view to our worldwide audience.”

What’s stunning about CNN’s position about the importance of airing a holistic dialogue — one that represents the political views of the entire country — is that it makes it the outlier in the current cable news landscape. Yes, Fox News has a handful of token progressives (often “outnumbered” four to one) and MSNBC tries to book Republican politicians, but CNN is going into 2020 as the most reliable platform for a consistent debate between the president’s supporters and detractors.

***

Kanye West once famously defended his antics to Breakfast Club host Charlamagne tha God in a manner that is relevant to the Duffy experience at CNN. “The opposite of love is not hate,” West said. “The opposite of love is indifference.”

Judging by his two weeks on the CNN payroll, there appears to be zero indifference to Sean Duffy’s contributions. And given the political lean of CNN viewers in the Trump era, there likely isn’t a lot of love either. But as the political media world follows Trump’s lead into the Pro Wrestling model, Duffy’s addition is good business. Remember, cable news is not exclusively news, its entertainment packaged as (and occasionally delivered with) news.

Duffy may have stepped in it on Tuesday when he played the “Ukraine card” to undermine Lt. Col. Vindman. But that err received a ton of attention that cable news programmers craved, and also engendered a meaningful discussion about what was at the foundation of his claims.

But in a rare coincidence, his on-air hits are not only good for business — they are good for the national dialog as well.

Like it or not, Duffy’s arguments are pervasive on the right, a vast swathe of the country. They go unchallenged and flourish in right-wing media. Shouldn’t those arguments be invited on CNN and challenged? Or is it better to cup one’s ears and pretend Trump doesn’t have supporters who believe this? CNN’s thinking is invite them on, challenge their beliefs, and have viewers watch the arguments emanating from the Oval Office fall apart.

As for Keilar’s dig? Let Kutler explain: “When any CNN contributor crosses the line, they will be called out and fact-checked by our anchors. You saw that yesterday, Duffy’s comments were not acceptable.”

Over the past few years, Sean Duffy has mostly existed in a thought bubble defined by pro-Trump Fox News hosts and similar-minded Republicans inside the beltway. Being challenged on live television is not only a healthy thing for Duffy and viewers, but it also exemplifies the very thing that is missing in the Trump era’s bitterly divided political world.

A respectful discussion between ideological foes. The world needs more of these debates, not less of them. Kudos to CNN for making a brave effort to add to the debate.

 

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

Filed Under: