‘Citizen by CNN’ took place yesterday in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City. It was strange event, the purpose of which was not clear. It consisted mainly of 12 panel discussions centered on the news of the times.
Perhaps the best and simplest way to describe it is that, of the more than 20 esteemed panelists who paneled, exactly one was a supporter of Donald Trump. That was his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, who went on first opposite CNN anchor Jim Sciutto. Of all the panels, one stood out, but before we get to that, a little background.
The lovely studio on Varick Street and the catering were the highlights of the event. In one room tables with an array of breakfast food greeted us and in the next a giant backdrop behind the stage set before stunning tall glass window views of downtown Manhattan. It turns out journalists are like the guests at Ebenezer Scrooge’s funeral: they will attend, but they must be fed.
The panels ranged from “All Jokes Aside” featuring Seth Meyers, who proudly proclaimed that any hardcore Trump supporter who watches his show is hate watching, to “The Contenders,” featuring the three Republicans challenging Trump in the GOP primary, who I won’t name because, let’s face it, they aren’t contenders.
There was a panel called “Badass Women of the Democratic Presidential Campaigns,” in which four women who are senior staffers for four different camps were celebrated as each confirmed that the majority of their staffs are women. Not mentioned was Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to actually win a presidential campaign she ran.
The host was CNN President Jeff Zucker, who just before lunch promised that the panel just after lunch, featuring himself and Brian Stelter, would be the best one of the day, to which everyone assembled dutifully laughed.
Lunch was quite nice: an array of salads topped with either salmon, steak, or chicken, pressed juices, and a bounty of pleasant desserts. Apples and bananas were of course in the offing as well. Normally at these kinds of events I spot a few conservatives I know, since I know pretty much all 15 conservatives in New York journalism, but not this time. I was in the lion’s den, apparently alone.
After we dined, Zucker returned to the mic to introduce himself and Stelter, with the same joke about how it would be the best panel and receiving the same dutiful laughter. And that’s when things got weird, cringeworthy, and not a little amount masturbatory.
Stelter opened with a question about Trump’s tweets, including one where the president said Zucker was going to resign. Zucker said he was not going to resign, although later expressed interest in becoming mayor of New York City. That was the first time in my life I ever thought, “Maybe de Blasio isn’t so bad.”
They soon moved on to whether it is responsible for CNN to show live coverage of the sitting president of the United States’ appearances before the press, mournfully resigned that they probably had to but only with fact-checking chryons on the screen. All the while Stelter made “I better be careful, I’m interviewing the boss,” jokes that landed like a suicide victim who had jumped off the Empire State Building.
Then things really got bizarre. They discussed the recent hiring of former Rep. Sean Duffy to be an analyst at CNN. Both had received complaints that the network was, gasp, paying a Trump supporter to present Trump’s side of things. Zucker’s justification floored me. He said the reason they don’t just use Trump-supporting unpaid guests is that “It’s hard to find people who will come on to support Trump.”
At this point, I almost raised my hand and yelled out, “I’ll do it!” But that didn’t seem in keeping with the event or very wise given my company, so instead I mentally ticked off the roughly 6,000 people I know who would be more than happy to appear on CNN to defend Trump. It was at about this point that the topic turned to the evils of Fox News.
Let’s see: Zucker said of his network’s competitor that it is not a news organization, it is state-run TV. He also that it is conspiracy TV that is doing a disservice to the country. He scolded Stelter for daring to suggest that even some of what Fox News presents is actual news. Mind you, this is the same guy who booked two dozen speakers for this event and couldn’t manage to find one Trump supporter who isn’t in the administration. So, I guess while not state TV, CNN is just Democratic Party TV.
Asked what he thought was the biggest thing CNN does wrong, Zucker had no answer. When Stelter provided one, namely that they use the term “Breaking News,” too often, he begrudgingly agreed, but basically sloughed it off as something everyone does. That is how blameless he envisions the product he creates. The panel finished with Zucker explaining how important it is to the world that CNN be strong.
One question that Stelter — CNN’s media critic, mind you — did not ask the guy who signs his paycheck is what if anything he knew about the accusations of sexual assault among NBC employees while Zucker was a top executive there. That seemed kind of an odd thing for Stelter to leave out, given that he had a reliable source on the story right next to him. But, whatever, right?
By the end of the half hour, I can honestly say I had experienced the smarmiest, most self-congratulatory, dishonest, and squirm-inducing discussion I have ever had the displeasure of witnessing in person. It was like watching Bill Clinton and Stormy Daniels discuss their unyielding dedication to chastity.
Anyway, a few hours later I ducked out a bit early, missing the final 15 minutes of scheduled banter between Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon. Don’t tell my boss — he might get angry and make me do a panel with him. Back on the street, I smoked a well-earned cigarette, walked to the subway, and marveled at the self-delusion of the most trusted name in news.