CNN. Ever heard of it? It’s the most trusted name in news, where facts are first, and apples are NOT bananas.
Chris Cuomo—the kid brother of New York’s governor—is the latest addition to the cable news giant’s primetime lineup. On Wednesday night, he welcomed White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders onto his new evening show for what became a prototypical display of CNN’s approach to TV coverage of the Trump administration.
“Gotta say it,” Cuomo opened the segment. “The relationship between the press and the White House sucks. Sorry, but that is the truth.”
Cuomo and Sanders exchanged some awkward niceties about appreciating the opportunity to talk before the anchor turned to the real reason he had Sanders on: Why did she tell the press that President Donald Trump had not dictated a statement denying a 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians, when his lawyers later told Special Counsel Robert Mueller that he did? As we’ve heard roughly a million times at this point, the press secretary—whose job it is to get information and respond to media questions—couldn’t possibly know the answer to this one:
SANDERS: If you guys want to talk about questions that have to do with White House policy and substantive policy, I’m happy to try to answer those and do the best I can to provide you that information. If you want to talk about things that don’t have anything to do with me and that are the venue of —
CUOMO: Except it does, right, because this is what you said.
SANDERS: — the outside counsel, that’s who should answer those questions.
CUOMO: I get it. I get that that’s the answer. But you also get it’s unsatisfying, right? That’s why we’re frozen.
SANDERS: I mean, I don’t understand having to answer the same question over and over and over again.
CUOMO: Because you haven’t answered it. That’s why.
CUOMO: In all due respect, it’s because you didn’t answer.
SANDERS: No, that’s not true. I’ve answered it, you just didn’t like the answer. There’s a big difference between me answering it and you not liking the answer.
Anyone who watches CNN regularly will recognize the ritual: Trump’s words, aides, or supporters are featured on shows for performative and often metaphysical debates over The Truth. The stalemate between Cuomo and Sanders dragged on for about five minutes of the pair’s 20-minute sitdown.
Why allow the human embodiment of feigned ignorance onto a program watched by hundreds of thousands of people? The argument is that Sanders’ non-answers, falsehoods, or whatever other euphemism that you prefer signal something important about this administration’s lack of credibility. Never mind that it’s safe to assume most everyone watching CNN already realizes Sanders isn’t to be trusted, and that those who think Sanders is more trustworthy than the press—as she has claimed from the podium—aren’t watching CNN.
These exchanges are really about putting top network talent front and center as bold crusaders, not to mention feeding the sprawling and diverse array of content that is CNN. As of writing this blog, parts of the interview were featured on four items gracing the CNN.com homepage: a video cut of the 5-minute back-and-forth; a writeup focusing on Sanders’ lack of regret over how she misinformed the public; a video of the press secretary’s response to “Spygate”; and another video of Cuomo taking offense at the press secretary’s suggestion that CNN doesn’t support veterans. The media monitor TVEyes suggests the interview was also mentioned at least two times on New Day Thursday morning. And that’s not even counting the numerous recaps—including this blog—on other sites.
Taken together, it not only puts CNN center stage in the story of the White House’s truth problem, but also in an adversarial yet—and this is crucial—not overtly ideological position toward the administration. It makes for an unimaginative and increasingly repetitive sort of shock journalism, and there is some evidence that it’s not working particularly well; the network’s total primetime audience in May was down 25 percent compared to the same month last year.
Is there a way to cover Trump and Sanders’ chronic inability to be accurate about basically anything they say? The Worldwide Leader in News surely has the institutional brainpower to figure it out. My lone hint is that the answer is unlikely to include canned interviews with people who very clearly don’t play by the same rules.