On Wednesday morning, a segment on CNN’s New Day about how the students who survived the massacre in Parkland, FL, have been subjected to a string of right-wing conspiracy theories veered into the extraordinary. But what made the discussion stand out wasn’t anchor Alyson Camerota exclaiming about Donald Trump Jr. “liking” the right-wing memes, “How gullible is this guy?” Nor was it media reporter Brian Stelter’s statement that the conspiracy theories were “a form of pollution” that “poisons the environment for all of us.”
What made those words remarkable was that roughly 24 hours before, a CNN commentator had breathed life into those same conspiracy theories on the very same show.
The commentator was Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman ostensibly kept on the network payroll to speak for the Trumpian wing of the GOP. On Tuesday’s New Day, Camerota asked Kingston about a Sunday night tweet suggesting that the teenage activists were somehow tied to George Soros and Antifa:
Kingston doubled down on this theory to New Day’s audience of hundreds of thousands of viewers:
I think it’s a horrible tragedy, and I’m heartbroken that young people have gone through this, and I hope that it never happens again. But I also know that their sorrow can very easily be hijacked by left-wing groups who have an agenda....I would say to you very plainly that organized groups that are out there like George Soros are always ready to take the charge and it’s kind of like instant rally, instant protest and those groups are ready to take it to the streets.
Camerota instantly batted down the suggestion. Kingston’s remarks were then replayed or referenced again on New Day, CNN Newsroom, and At This Hour, only to be fact-checked, according to a Nexis search. On Tuesday evening, Kingston re-appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 with a tempered version of his take, saying that the teenagers could only make so much noise with the help of the “pro-gun-control left.” Again, another smackdown from the channel’s on-air talent ensued.
Any frequent viewer of CNN will recognize this conflict as a feature—not a bug—of its rock ‘em, sock ‘em style of live TV coverage. The dynamics play out most notably with known liars like onetime commentator and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. An “analyst” or “opinion contributor” is brought to the studio for the stated purpose of providing the other side’s point of view, even if that point of view contradicts CNN’s own factual reporting. The result is a confusing end-product for anyone paying attention—and a win for bad-faith actors, like Lewandowski and Kingston, who clearly intend to muddy the waters. But it works for CNN. The exchanges are cut into videos that may go viral, and the verbal dragging at the hands of CNN’s brand-name anchors is the main event in a daily drama.
The model raises blindingly obvious questions: Why give these people a platform in the first place? Why take the chance that a performative fact-check of a CNN contributor’s conspiracy theories may in some ways amplify those conspiracy theories? Should casual viewers believe the CNN journalist in a suit or dress on one side of the TV screen, or the CNN commentator in a suit or dress on the other?
It’s gross enough for CNN to tacitly promote this kind of charlatanism when it comes to, say, the Trump administration. But to play this cynical game when children have been slaughtered, and when other children are being relentlessly attacked, brings the shamefulness of CNN’s model to a peak. It also pushes the cognitive dissonance to some especially grotesque places.
Take Wednesday morning’s episode of CNN Newsroom. Host John Berman asked student activist Rachel Catania,“What do you say to those people, those conspiracy theorists, out there who say that you’re an actor, or say that you’re being put up to this by liberal lawmakers? Is anyone forcing you to come on TV and talk right now?”
Catania had to deny it on live TV:
No, not at all. I’m not getting paid for this. I want to come out here on behalf of my city and my town and just spread the message on behalf of those who can’t. And I’m going to make sure that those 17 innocent people who had their lives taken from them did not die for no reason. No one’s paying me to do this. I’m not a crisis actor. I’m not even sure those are real. No, they’re not real.
Left unsaid in the exchange was that one of those very conspiracy theorists—an opinion contributor—had made those very claims with CNN’s stamp of approval just a day earlier. Pollution, indeed.
I asked CNN how they could justify this, and how viewers should weigh statements from CNN journalists against CNN contributors. I will update this post if I hear back.