Pundit Wars: How CNN and MSNBC's Conservative Voices Handle Trump Differently

Pundit Wars A Right Way to Talk to the Right? - Illustrations by Zohar Lazar - H 2018
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

When it comes to Republican contributors, CNN tends to hire Trump surrogates, while MSNBC focuses on the Never-Trumpers.

Ed Martin's wife watched him on television from her home in Missouri and wanted to know if he was all right. "She would text me after the show and say, 'Is it worth it?' Because they really beat the hell out of you," Martin says. Before he was terminated by CNN in January — likely for calling his fellow panelists "black racists" on his radio show — Martin says his mandate during his six months as one of the network's designated pro-Trump contributors was simple: speak his mind and mix things up, usually by doing battle with the network's liberal commentators.

"They were definitely telling me, 'Hey, it's good TV. Keep going,'" the former Missouri Republican Party chairman says in his first interview since his termination.

Martin was first hired by CNN to replace its original pro-Trump contributor, Jeffrey Lord, who was axed the previous August after tweeting "Sieg Heil!" at a liberal activist. On Sept. 22, Jason Miller announced his departure from the network after he was accused in a lawsuit of drugging a women with an abortion pill. And a month earlier, the network suspended Trump-supporting contributor Paris Dennard after The Washington Post reported he had been terminated from an earlier job for sexual harassment.

This string of forced departures has led some to question CNN's hiring practices, contending that the caliber of contributors sets them up for self-destruction. "They're not seasoned. They're not insiders," says Eric Bolling, a former Fox News host and friend of the president.

Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign staffer who appears regularly on CNN and has had preliminary talks with the network about joining as a paid contributor, thinks his kind have a target on their backs. Candace Owens, a conservative political activist, said on Twitter that Dennard was the victim of a "public lynching." (The network is still investigating.)

"There are people on Twitter who are there solely to destroy the reputations and the spirit of the pro-Trump contributors," Caputo says. "The only way to avoid the onslaught is to stay off CNN, but I'm not willing to do that because I don't see enough defense of the president."

Others say the network is simply fishing from a shallow pool of talent. "I just don't think there are a lot of cable-ready, credible people who have the credentials to be debating on behalf of the Trump administration," Bolling says. "If they're out there, they're working in the administration or, frankly, on Fox."

Chris Cuomo, who now has CNN's top-rated primetime show, frequently battles with Trump mouthpieces who draw the ire of his left-leaning viewers. "I don't think anybody has on more people who support the president than I do," says Cuomo. "I am thankful for them to come on. They know it's not going to be fun. But they know it's going to be fair."

Cuomo's ratings success shows that combat can be a winning programming strategy. "What I was told all along, and they were very coy about it, was that I was rating really well," says Martin, revealing that CNN fired him after he was put on ice for three weeks. "They were hoping it would blow over."

CNN's insistence on hiring pundits to take Trump's side, despite the protestation of viewers, represents a clear difference in strategy with MSNBC, which strives to provide balance by giving airtime to Never-Trump Republicans — like former John McCain strategist Steve Schmidt — who reinforce viewers' dislike of the president. "I appreciate the fact that those who are not part of the Trump train are given a voice," says conservative MSNBC contributor Charlie Sykes, who claims to have lost all his friends on the right but has endeared himself to the network's liberal viewers. "I do notice the [harsh] reaction if I ever say anything that reminds people that I am still a conservative."

CNN also employs Trump-bashing Republicans, most prominently Ana Navarro.

While the pundits on MSNBC don't hesitate to disagree with one another, those on CNN often attack fellow panelists in personal ways that can make viewers uneasy. Scott Jennings, a former George W. Bush staffer who joined CNN in 2017, refrains from that type of aggression: "I'm not interrupting people, I'm not hollering at other people, I'm not having a meltdown on television."

CNN, while publicly despised by the president, also is more likely to book Trump staffers than MSNBC. One senior Trump staffer says that White House officials are informally banned from appearing on the network's morning show, Morning Joe, due to bad blood between the hosts and the president.

While MSNBC has ridden its more like-minded pairing of liberals and Trump-hating Republicans to great ratings, sometimes besting Fox News in primetime, Sykes says the tactic has an expiration date: the second Trump leaves the White House. At that point, Never-Trump Republicans become just Republicans, taking conservative positions that will likely upset the network's most liberal viewers. He says, "There's no question this is a temporary alignment."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.