There are bad first days at work and then there is Sean Duffy’s first day at CNN. Appearing as the network’s latest pro-Trump talking head last week, the former Wisconsin congressman (and Real World: Boston castmember) claimed that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election was a false flag operation conducted by Ukrainians, not the Russians. The rest of the panel on State of the Union practically shouted him down: “This is a disputed, absurd conspiracy theory that you’re talking about right now,” conservative pundit Amanda Carpenter said.
Duffy tried his luck again the next day, suggesting that all Donald Trump wanted was to find the “real” DNC hackers, i.e. anybody but the Russians. CNN host Alisyn Camerota cut him off. “That’s a conspiracy theory,” she said indignantly.
CNN executives certainly knew what they were getting into when they hired Duffy. A five-term congressman and Tea Party darling, Duffy has a long, well-documented history of making inflammatory and dishonest comments. Appearing on the network in February of 2017, Duffy defended Trump’s Muslim ban by saying Middle Eastern terrorists are a more significant threat than white domestic terrorists because the latter commit “one-off” attacks. In the same interview he cited the “good things” that stemmed from Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. He has also suggested that George Soros was rigging elections, that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin has “ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” and that the Democratic Party’s pro-choice policies intentionally targeted black communities and amounted to “infanticide.”
Unfortunately for CNN and any other organization clinging to a both-sides model of journalism, Duffy is probably the best the network can get. Call it asymmetric punditry: As Republicans become more extreme, it’s become near-impossible to find non-loony ones to fill airtime on cable news.
Duffy, who resigned his congressional seat this summer, will undoubtedly say outrageous and absurd things nearly every time he appears on air. That’s because he isn’t there to make cogent arguments. He is there to act as a surrogate for the president and to show that CNN is still willing to hear from the president’s defenders—that it is not, as the president often claims, solely fixated on bringing about his removal from office.
Duffy’s presence highlights the media’s struggles to maintain journalistic “balance” in a moment when the president of the United States is openly contemptuous of the truth and uses every opportunity to spout propaganda. And it also points to the ever-widening gulf between political analysts on the Trumpian right and everyone else.
Ever since Trump’s election, mainstream news outlets have sought what Brian Beutler of Crooked Media has called the “Goldilocks conservative,” a figure who is both pro-Trump and intellectually honest—someone who can speak to the concerns of the president’s supporters without falling into his bigotry, vulgarity, incoherence, paranoia, and mendaciousness.
These outlets have failed to find these people because they don’t exist. As Beutler wrote, “Editors who have responded to Trump by opening their platforms to more conservatives, while trying simultaneously to uphold the standards of their institutions, have repeatedly seen their best intentions run aground because most conservatives don’t share those standards.”
Cable news outlets already have stables full of liberal and progressive talking heads. And there are plenty of sober analysts—Doris Kearns Goodwin types—available to shoot the shit on Sunday shows. Post-Trump, however, the Never Trump conservatives who had previously dutifully advanced Republican talking points were overpopulating cable news shows and editorial pages. There were few pro-Trump figures, particularly ones who could represent the president’s political base.
CNN, in particular, has hunted for the right pro-Trump pundit, with disastrous results. Jeffrey Lord, whose exchanges with Van Jones regularly went viral, was fired after tweeting “Sieg Heil” at the president of Media Matters. Jason Miller resigned after he was accused of “surreptitiously” dosing a woman he had impregnated with an abortion pill. Earlier this year, the network cut ties with two pro-Trump surrogates, Andre Bauer and Jack Kingston—the latter of whom suggested that Parkland gun control activists were being manipulated by Soros. Kayleigh McEnany left in 2017 to work for the Republican National Committee. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was still cashing checks from the Trump campaign while he was a paid CNN contributor, resigned from CNN in November of 2016 though he still appears on the network.
Most of these people used their time on air to make false, propagandistic assertions. It was inevitable—it’s what you’re bound to get if you’re looking for someone to defend Donald Trump. Nervy interactions between pro-Trump surrogates and hosts like Cupp or Jake Tapper have become a kind of theater. But they offer nothing of substance, and could even do harm by giving conspiracy theories and the like a platform.
Duffy will likely wash out like the others in the coming months, having said several ridiculous and patently untrue things already. All CNN will get out of Duffy is a series of pointless controversies. Its viewers will get even less.
Update: Duffy is at it again, attempting to smear Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Purple Heart–winning Iraq War veteran who is slated to testify against Trump in the Ukraine affair (Vindman emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine):