No one in the political media world was all that surprised when CNN decided to cut ties with comedian Kathy Griffin for posing with a bloodied, severed head made up to look exactly like President Donald Trump.
For one, she was barely associated with the network in the first place, appearing just once a year on New Year’s Eve with her friend, Anderson Cooper, who himself had denounced her actions. And secondly, the photoshoot was roundly condemned by all sides as being not only tasteless but also unfunny and without satirical merit. It was only after Trump used his 11-year-old son to shame Griffin that she began to regain a bit of sympathy for what could be a career-ending move.
CNN’s decision on Friday to drop Reza Aslan and his spiritual documentary series Believer, however, has been met with a very different reaction. The network said it “decided to not move forward with production” of the show’s second season, which was already in the works, without giving any explanation for that decision. But it comes less than a week after Aslan, a best-selling author who also served as a consulting producer on HBO's The Leftovers, came under fire for his own anti-Trump statement.
After President Trump used the London terror attack to promote his Muslim travel ban, Aslan posted a tweet that called him a "piece of shit" who is "not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency" but also "an embarrassment to humankind." He later deleted the tweet and issued an apology, saying, “I should have used better language to express my shock and frustration at the president’s lack of decorum and sympathy for the victims of London. I apologize for my choice of words.”
Like with Griffin, that apology was not enough to make the issue go away, with conservative groups like the Media Research Center calling for him to be fired and Fox News’ media reporter Howard Kurtz “wondering” aloud “if he will still have a show” by the time this story had come to its inevitable end.
A few days later, Aslan’s show has been canceled. Apparently, the pressure CNN felt from Trump supporters was so strong that they decided it just wasn’t worth it to keep his show on the air, despite the fact that it consistently won the coveted 25 to 54 demo in its Sunday night time slot during the first quarter of this year. Now, even Fox’s Sean Hannity, whom Aslan also once called a “piece of shit,” is defending him on Twitter, using the hashtag #FreeSpeech.
“Obviously I am very disappointed in this decision,” Aslan wrote in a statement immediately following the announcement. “Believer means a great deal to me and to the countless viewers it’s reached. Its message of religious tolerance and exploration is extremely important right now. I am deeply grateful to CNN for giving me the opportunity to launch the show and to amplify my voice on their network. I am especially grateful to the legion of people within the Turner organization who worked so hard to make the show a hit series.”
“However, in these politically charged times, the tenor of our nation’s discourse has become complicated, and I recognize that CNN needs to protect its brand as an unbiased news outlet,” he continued. “Similarly, I need to honor my voice. I am not a journalist. I am a social commentator and scholar. And so I agree with CNN that it is best that we part ways. I look forward to partnering with another platform in the future to continue to spread my message. I wish CNN all the best.”
Like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America, Aslan’s Believer is a still relatively new type of original programming for CNN, driven by the strong, opinionated personalities who host these often experimental shows. If those hosts don’t feel like they can speak their minds on issues that matter to them — and in Aslan’s case, relate directly to the religious subject of his show — will they really want to continue working for a network that restricts their freedom to speak?
Meanwhile, if CNN really wanted to “protect its brand as an unbiased news outlet,” as Aslan suggests, then how to explain its continued employment of Donald Trump sycophants like Jeffrey Lord? Or Kayleigh McEnany? Or Trump’s new favorite commentator Alan Dershowitz?
These figures may have never used — gasp! — profanity to defend Donald Trump at all costs, but they have made plenty of far more offensive arguments, intellectually speaking, than anything Aslan has tweeted.
And then there is Corey Lewandowski, who was hired by CNN after he was caught on tape manhandling former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields. And he was still on the Trump campaign’s payroll at the time. He resigned voluntarily following Trump’s victory, evidently with hopes of joining the administration. But for now, he is languishing in relative obscurity at a small TV network that has positioned itself to the right of Fox News.
CNN president Jeff Zucker has rightly received a lot of flack for describing his pro-Trump panelists as “characters in a drama.” As he told The New York Times this spring, “Everybody says, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,’ but you know what? They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are.”
The implication there was that it didn’t matter what kind of worldview these “characters” were promoting as long as they were compelling while doing it. Apparently, the same standard does not apply to Trump critics like Reza Aslan.