Public Editor

CNN Public Editor: The Value for the Viewer

June 11, 2019
Screen shot via YouTube.

In March, as Chris Cuomo made the toss from his primetime show to Don Lemon’s CNN Tonight, Cuomo reflected on an interview with Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, that he had just wrapped. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kellyanne less effective in defense of the president than she was tonight,” he said.

“Here’s the thing,” Lemon replied. “She never answers a question. She berates you. She’s condescending. She uses our network to give her talking points. For me, it feels beneath the dignity of this network to have someone who constantly lies and misconstrues things. And I feel like having someone on like that is giving them a platform that they have not earned.”

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“We’ve had this discussion before,” Cuomo said. “If I held that standard, I’d have very few people on this show.” (That moment of self-awareness would stick in my mind for weeks.) He went on, “She is the president’s first choice for his defense. I believe he gets that right…If this is who he wants to come on, I want my audience to see what he believes his best defense to be.”

But this is a matter of fact versus fiction, Lemon said. “I just feel like we do a disservice when we try to give a false equivalence to someone who is clearly has an agenda to mislead people.”

Cuomo replied, “I choose to call it out in real time and let people see it for what it is.”

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Late last month, I thought of that exchange. Cuomo had on Kimberly Guilfoyle—a former prosecutor and Fox News pundit, now a senior advisor to Trump’s campaign and Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend. The subject at hand: President Trump’s threats to impose tariffs on Mexican goods unless, as Cuomo put it, Mexico “starts getting after illegal immigration to the White House’s satisfaction.”

“This is heavy stuff,” Cuomo said. “Question is, what’s the sell? Is this good for us or bad for us as consumers?” He turned to Guilfoyle.

“There’s human trafficking, there’s drugs coming in, there’s a drug epidemic, crime,” she replied. She also suggested that Mexico, “as one of our economic partners, bears some of the responsibility”—skipping over the reality that, even as tariffs would be imposed on Mexico, they would likely raise prices for American consumers.

Cuomo seemed to accept that there is an immigration crisis (“There’s no question it’s real,” he said) but pushed her on how tariffs would be the answer. Guilfoyle explained that the problem was Democrats, who were stonewalling, and that the American taxpayer would never shoulder the burden. “Guess what, tariffs work,” she said.

Guilfoyle has not worked as an economist. She has not crafted foreign or immigration policy. She is not an expert on Central America. What possible value, I wondered, were CNN’s viewers getting from watching Guilfoyle speak about this subject? If Cuomo wanted Trump talking points, couldn’t he have just played a clip of Trump himself? If Cuomo wanted someone behind Trump’s immigration policy to explain it, shouldn’t he have brought in a member of the administration?


I thought again of Lemon’s exchange with Cuomo when, after Trump’s state dinner in the United Kingdom last week, Cuomo brought on Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media and a friend of Trump’s. Ruddy was present at the state dinner, so I thought perhaps he would offer some new insight or information from the event.

Cuomo asked Ruddy what was served (Ruddy didn’t say, but we found out later that it was halibut, lamb, and strawberry sable) and for his thoughts on Queen Elizabeth’s remarks urging nations to work more closely together. What did Trump make of her speech? Ruddy replied by talking about how much the United States pays for NATO: “Do you know, Chris, that every American family would be able to send their kids to college basically for free if we didn’t have the defense burden that we did? If we had the same defense burden that Germany has, we wouldn’t have a student loan crisis.” As I’d seen before, the “interview” was a bust. What’s the point of having someone on air if he’s not going to answer questions honestly, or even at all?

Why was I listening to Ruddy talk about NATO and student loans when his credentials are CEO of a media company and knowing Trump personally? He isn’t setting US defense or foreign policy; nor does he have a say in how student loans work. He is a member of the Kissinger Council at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (and is listed as a CSIS donor); once, he attended the Munich Security Conference as part of the US delegation. But why should a CNN viewer care about those credentials, particularly if he’s not going to answer Cuomo’s question about the state dinner, which is what Ruddy was invited to discuss?

CNN did not respond to requests for comment sent over the past week to a communications executive and the senior publicist for Cuomo Prime Time, about the value of having on Guilfoyle, or Ruddy, or other evasive or “alternative fact” guests. (Cuomo didn’t reply to me, either.) Of course, there may be a viewer out there who wants to know what Guilfoyle thinks of tariffs, and what Ruddy thinks of the transatlantic alliance. But if the people being interviewed aren’t in the administration, can’t be held accountable to anyone, don’t have relevant expertise, and refuse to answer a host’s questions, what’s their value? All I can see is what Lemon tried to get Cuomo to look at: an evasive person standing on a platform that hasn’t been earned.

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Emily Tamkin serves as CJR’s public editor for CNN. See this primer for more information on our public editor project.