Rick Santorum and CNN’s long history of hiring bigoted and dishonest commentators

While some CNN employees have rightfully begun to call out far-right dishonesty, the network has a long history of enabling shady pundits
Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Rewriting history with a racist flair, CNN contributor Rick Santorum recently told a group of young conservatives that white European colonists miraculously created this nation out of whole cloth. “We came here and created a blank slate,” said the two-time Republican senator. “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”  

Santorum’s comments, “effectively dismissing the millennia-long presence of Native Americans and the genocide inflicted on them as the Christian settlers transformed and expanded their colonies into the United States of America, angered many within the Native American community, and beyond,” The Guardian reported. As of Monday night, CNN wasn’t answering reporters’ questions about the controversy, nor did any on-air hosts or panelists acknowledge it.

In a statement, the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s largest organization representing American Indian and Alaska Native groups, condemned the former senator and his employer. “Rick Santorum is an unhinged and embarrassing racist who disgraces CNN and any other media company that provides him a platform,” the group’s president, Fawn Sharp, said.

That is accurate. The question is can CNN be disgraced into action? “Because of CNN, Rick Santorum is a prominent face in America who used his white privilege to erase the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of people,” wrote Oliver Willis on Monday.

Santorum has been a staple of ignorance for years at CNN — in 2018 he cheered a report that Trump had tried to bury a government report on climate change, insisting, “A lot of these scientists are driven by money.”

That same year he made hateful and foolish comments about students trying to change gun laws after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “How about kids instead of looking to someone else to solve their problem, do something about maybe taking CPR classes or trying to deal with situations that when there is a violent shooter that you can actually respond to that,” Santorum said, incredibly.

CNN’s professional embrace of a bigot like Santorum highlights the branding conundrum the network faces — CNN wants to position itself as occupying the center of American politics, which means CNN has to have conservative voices on to match liberal voices so it can stage Both Sides debates. (Think: Crossfire format.) For decades, that worked for the network.

And on paper, there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is trying to find honest conservatives in the GOP that’s been remade in the image of Trump.

It’s not up to CNN and other media players to hire and platform bad actors like Santorum simply because the conservative movement is filled with so many bad actors. All news outlets ought to have easily identifiable standards, and if paid contributors can’t meet those standards, they should not be associated with the network. Being pro-genocide ought to be an easy demarcation line for CNN.

Sadly, we’ve seen this dance before. In 2019, CNN hired former Congressman, and habitual liar, Sean Duffy, whose previous claim to fame on Capitol Hill had been his undying loyalty to Trump. During his CNN debut, Duffy lied about the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords. He lied about Joe Biden trying to fire a Ukraine prosecutor in order to protect his son. Duffy helped spread the preposterous lie about the Democratic National Committee’s email servers from 2016 somehow ending up in a foreign country. And he soon questioned the patriotism of Purple Heart recipient Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman after Vindman told House investigators damaging information about Trump’s open collusion with Ukraine.

When pressed about the hiring of Duffy, CNN chief Jeff Zucker insisted it was all done in the name of diversity. “It’s my belief that we should represent out there what those who support Donald Trump think. … We need those voices and I think there’s a place for them.” He added: “I acknowledge there are people who disagree with me on that. I feel strongly that their point of view should be heard.”

Reminder: During the 2016 campaign, that same Zucker privately offered the Trump campaign media advice, and floated the idea of CNN giving the GOP candidate a weekly TV show.

Eventually, CNN and Duffy parted ways. He now pops up on Fox News, where he belongs.

Over the years, CNN tried hiring lots of Trump loyalists who chewed up the cable news scenery, spreading lie after preposterous lie, including ones spun by Jason Miller, Jack Kingston, Ed Martin, Jeffrey Lord, and Corey Lewandowski, among others. None of them, to be generous, covered the network in glory. Following the Parkland school shooting, Kingston told CNN viewers that students who rallied against gun violence were being taken advantage of by “left-wing gun control activists” led by billionaire George Soros.

Santorum’s attempt to erase both Native American culture and white settlers’ mass killings ought be reason enough for CNN to show him the door.

This essay first appeared at Press Run and is republished with permission.