The consensus headline from the third and final presidential debate was Republican candidate Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the 2016 election results. It was a stunning rebuke of American political norms from the nominee of a major political party, and it quickly dominated coverage online Wednesday night and in major print newspapers Thursday morning.The Associated Press’ lede said Trump is “threatening to upend a fundamental pillar of American democracy.”
At CNN, however, confusion initially reigned. The network’s journalists expressed shock at Trump’s comments within seconds of the debate’s conclusion. “One of the most stunning things I’ve ever heard in a presidential debate, ever,” said Jake Tapper, the network’s chief Washington correspondent. The news organization’s online coverage echoed that language, which led CNN’s homepage Thursday morning:
But pro-Trump contributors attempted to muddle this point during a panel discussion after the debate, when viewership was likely highest. Their baseless speculation that the election might somehow be rigged overstepped CNN’s reporting and undercut its purported goal of informing its audience. The comments, which drew stern rebuttals from other CNN on-air talent, highlight how the network’s pursuit of the appearance of objectivity in 2016 has distorted its final product on television. It also provides a clear example of how the channel’s model puts CNN journalists in the awkward position of fact-checking CNN contributors in real time.
Beginning the post-debate panel, Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger, a journalist, echoed Tapper in describing Trump’s comments as “stunning.” Jeffrey Lord, a pro-Trump talking head, retorted by inaccurately comparing them to when Democratic candidate Al Gore challenged the vote count in 2000. Borger rightly shot down this analogy—Gore’s challenge was after the fact, with a legitimate recount underway—which drew charges of “double standards” from Lord. “You’re illustrating the problem,” he said.
The smokescreens didn’t end there. After analyst Van Jones correctly shook his head at this comparison and criticized Trump for an apparent disrespect for democratic values, contributor Kayleigh McEnany also offered up a Hail Mary for Trump:
MCENANY: I’m truly perplexed to hear you talk because you’re asking him to accept something that hasn’t happened yet. None of us know what is going to happen on Tuesday, November 8th.
JONES: We’re going to have an election in our country. There’s been 240 years of it.
MCENANY: And in fact, I’m going to cite J. Christian Adams, who was a voting attorney, voters attorney for the Department of Justice, said that there are as many as four million dead people registered to vote right now. There is voting fraud out there. Donald Trump is going to —
JONES: That’s not voting fraud.
ANDERSON COOPER: That’s not voting fraud.
MCENANY: Dead people vote?
COOPER: You’re making that up.
You’re making that up. Such put-downs from a CNN journalist to a CNN contributor would be surprising, except that they have been necessary embarrassingly often over the course of this campaign. Trump’s divorce from truth on the trail has been buttressed by talking heads relaying his misinformation on cable. This divide is particularly striking at down-the-middle CNN, which has built out a first-rate team of political reporters that aggressively challenges the veracity of these very claims. And Trump’s conspiracy theory that the election will be rigged against him has only magnified it further.
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When the topic came up on Wednesday afternoon’s CNN Newsroom, host Brooke Baldwin rejected the premise, put forth by Lord, that a rigged election was even possible. “I don’t doubt there are certain instances,” she said. “But in terms of widespread voter fraud, that’s just not true.” She might as well have been speaking to a brick wall, as seen in the clip below:
Trump surrogate on CNN warns of voting “hanky panky: “Just because I push the button for Trump doesn’t mean my vote will be cast for Trump.” pic.twitter.com/xUsVRueSjX
— T. Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) October 19, 2016
Such exchanges aren’t lost on CNN journalists off-camera. Dylan Byers, senior reporter for media and politics, fired off a string of tweets condemning Lord’s evidence-free remarks.
Jesus… Jeffrey Lord is on air saying “just because I push the button for Donald Trump doesn’t mean my vote will be cast for Donald Trump.”
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) October 19, 2016
The baseless rigged election talk is as low as it gets…. Every surrogate who pushes it will be remembered for doing so after the election.
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) October 19, 2016
CNN journalists often provide such pushback. On Sunday’s Reliable Sources, for example, Brian Stelter gave an impassioned monologue slamming Trump’s repeated claims of vote rigging, which he described as “propaganda tactics.” But with on-air contributors also peddling such conspiracy theories—and on high-stakes debate nights in particular—it’s worth asking what viewers’ takeaways might actually be.
These contradictions are an effect of how CNN designs its cable programs. In an interview at the Harvard Kennedy School last week, CNN President Jeff Zucker argued that its formula for live panel discussions—reporters, analysts, and partisans—wouldn’t be complete without pro-Trump voices. Critics of the setup, Zucker said, “don’t like the idea of the Trump candidacy, and that’s just a projection of ‘How could you have those people on the set?’ Well, we have them on the set because somebody’s got to represent 14 million people who voted for the guy [in the Republican primary].”
The explanation came after another interview this summer in which Zucker defended the hire of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who has a non-disparagement agreement with the GOP nominee and until recently was receiving severance from his campaign. “It’s really important to have voices on CNN who are supportive of the Republican nominee,” Zucker said. “It’s hard to find a lot of those.”
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Perhaps there’s a reason few intellectually honest political experts back Trump. But put aside the fact that this is the textbook definition of false balance, and that Lewandowski in particular has an obvious conflict of interest. CNN contributors are introducing false information into the network’s programs.
Lewandowski is the ultimate case study in this regard. When I reviewed a week’s worth of his on-air appearances last month, it quickly became clear that he injected falsehoods at many turns. Take his defense of Trump’s indefensible birther lie, as seen in part below. Pay special attention to how CNN host Don Lemon patiently bats down Lewandowski’s arguments:
Such surreal “analysis” goes beyond the usual parroting of partisan talking points, with statements clouding, if not contradicting, CNN’s own reporting. The network’s journalists have performed admirably under these circumstances, particularly with the election looming ever closer. But the argument that this setup adds value for the audience, on balance, is dubious at best.
Trump certainly benefits by having these voices on air, regardless of whether what they’re saying is true. It’s yet another example of how his penchant for lies and innuendo has exposed weak points in the traditional structures of political journalism. Cracks were initially evident last year in newspaper-style coverage, though that genre has long since become openly adversarial, if not contemptuous, of the GOP nominee. More recently, there’s been speculation of internal squabbles at Fox News, which is composed of both real journalists and avowed Trump fanboys, like Sean Hannity.
CNN pays pro-Trump contributors to provide it with a shinier veneer of objectivity. But it’s become all too clear in recent months that this mission actively harms its journalists’ pursuit of the truth. The news organization must clarify where its real priorities lie.
A representative for CNN did not respond to CJR’s request for comment.David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.