What Does It Take to Get a White Man Fired From CNN?
I got four warnings there. Reza Aslan and Octavia Nasr and Marc Lamont Hill didn’t get off with just warnings. Rick Santorum seems to be just fine. Can you spot the difference?
What will it take for CNN to fire Rick Santorum, and why do double standards appear to persist that protect white conservative men in cable news but not their colleagues of color?
It’s a perennial question, one I’ve been on the receiving end of and that was raised most recently by Rick Santorum’s latest ignorant, bigoted, and controversial comments in a career built on such comments. At a recent speech for the ultra-conservative Young America’s Foundation summit, the CNN commentator and former senator echoed the talking points of racists when he incorrectly alleged that white European Christians “came [to America] and created a blank slate; we birthed a nation from nothing.” His White Nationalist Guide to U.S. History conveniently omitted colonization, slavery, murder, and theft—and dismissed Native Americans with the claim that “there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
I was utterly shocked that a former Republican presidential candidate who once compared homosexuality to bestiality and then landed a lucrative contract with CNN would say something so offensive! It’s comforting to know that it still pays to be a bigot during a pandemic and recession. While Santorum has apologized for some of his past homophobic comments he’s never done so for his many Islamophobic ones—including conflating radical Islam with mainstream Islam, saying “Sharia law is evil,” advocating for Muslim profiling, believing that the U.S. Constitution does not protect Islam in the same way it protects Christianity, and associating with hatemongers such as David Horowitz all while obsessively pushing a line about Muslim birth rates in Europe, where natives are supposedly giving ground in a “war” with radical Islam: “Europe is on the way to losing. The most popular male name in Belgium - Mohammad. It’s the fifth most popular name in France among boys.”
Santorum has also used his platform at CNN to complain about “cancel culture,” the right wing’s manufactured bogeyman that weaponizes fearmongering and fake victimhood to allow the powerful and privileged the freedom to continue to be cruel and hateful without accountability. But, sadly, he’s still there, uncanceled. Of course, such hypocrisy by bad-faith actors is nothing new. They’ve in fact been practicing the ugly art by targeting and attempting to cancel commentators of color at CNN. I should know. They tried it against me.
Overall, I had a wonderful time as an on-air opinion contributor at CNN and was respected by the producers, hosts, and staff. I even had cordial relations with Rick Santorum, whom I often debated on TV. We used to greet each other in the makeup room and green room, where we exchanged a smile and a nod, and remained professional on and off the set.
My contract wasn’t renewed due to the pandemic, and I was told they were replacing many political commentators with doctors and scientists. However, most of the conservative commentators pretty much stayed in place. They can thank the media’s affirmative action policy for right-wing pundits, as they continue to complain about “cancel culture” while being paid and given a prestigious platform by “fake news.”
As a person of color, you know you’re effective and threatening when you’re consistently being targeted and smeared by the right-wing ecosystem, an incestuous group that creates and blasts the same talking points across multiple media platforms at the same time, hitting you like a blitzkrieg. I was apparently crushing it, because I was given four warnings by CNN management, each one in response to a wave of outrage manufactured by conservatives responding to basically benign comments. As it turns out, the “F your feelings” crowd is full of snowflakes who demand safe spaces for themselves.
Warning #1: On air, I told Steve Cortes, who was on Trump’s National Hispanic Advisory Council, that Trump’s base will “never love you.” I ended the segment by telling him to “Be Best.” I went home and didn’t think anything of it, but it must have triggered something deep and personal in him, because Cortes would not stop tweeting or writing about me, a fellow CNN colleague. For this, I was warned to be respectful to my colleagues.
Warning #2: I debated Scott Jennings, who poses as a moderate conservative but holds the GOP line, and told him that he and other Republicans who support Trump need to stand up with ethics and stop acting like spineless amoebas. It was a solid segment. I had a Coke in the green room, took off my makeup, went home and thought nothing of it. He whined, and the next day I got my second warning.
Warning #3: I published a silly tweet about Rand Paul after it was announced he got COVID but still used the Senate gym and attended lunches with his colleagues. I was told to immediately delete the tweet and reminded that this was my third warning.
Warning #4: My final warning was due to the infamous “U Crane” segment with Rick Wilson, where we spent the majority of our time discussing how Trump and Pompeo belittled women journalists and how Trump’s base takes pride in his ignorance and cruelty. There was a two-minute detour with jokes, accents, and levity and that was that—until right-wingers mounted a campaign to use the clip to complain about liberal bias against Trump voters, which was retweeted by Trump himself and then used in a 2020 campaign ad, and even surfaced again to rile the base at the 2021 CPAC conference. Naturally, we received lovely death threats from the pro-life crowd, some of whom mocked my daughter who was enduring Stage 4 cancer at the time. I then received a call from CNN that warned me to be more careful next time.
In each case, I was told that I had to be mindful of what I said and tweeted because I represented CNN. Well, doesn’t Rick Santorum?
My experience is not unique. I’ll spill some more chai. Commentators of color, whether at CNN or MSNBC, often commiserate behind the scenes, in WhatsApp groups, and in the green room. We share tips, strategies, gossip, absurd stories about how we’re often mistaken for other commentators of color, and otherwise helpful advice to stay sane and survive in an often hostile media landscape run mostly by white men and women. We know we often won’t get the benefit of the doubt, we won’t get many second chances (and that most of us won’t get first ones), and we don’t have many allies or mentors from our communities in positions of power who’ll look out for us. We know we live in a country where our “anxiety,” which is real, will remain hijacked by the “economic anxiety” of the “real Americans” who “birthed” this country with the help of our labor.
As such, many POC commentators and reporters are far more self-censored on TV compared to our white peers, who can have latitude to say what they want without fear of real consequences. Just look at Rick Santorum.
Before joining CNN, a Muslim friend in media told me I’d have to be “perfect,” because, according to him, “if they can throw Reza under the bus, imagine what they’ll do to you.”
Reza Aslan’s hit show Believer was abruptly canceled in 2017 after he tweeted a profane criticism of President Trump. As London was undergoing a potential terror attack on June 3, Trump tweeted support for his Muslim Ban before the culprits’ identities had been revealed or any motive identified. Aslan responded by tweeting, “this piece of shit is not just an embarrassment to America and a stain on the presidency, he’s an embarrassment to humankind.” In hindsight, it’s a remarkably harmless statement—especially compared to Santorum’s awesome history of open bigotry—but the right wing created #FireReza and #CNNisISIS hashtags and urged the network to fire him, which they did less than a week later.
“CNN under [now former CEO] Jeff Zucker has always had a home for the Rick Santorums and Kayleigh McEnanys and Jeffrey Lords of the world, the latter of whom had to literally say ‘Heil Hitler’ (on Twitter) to get fired,” Aslan told me. “It’s been a far less welcoming place for people like me or Octavia Nasr or Marc Lamont Hill. You can draw your own conclusions as to why that is.”
Aslan maintains that to placate and stay close to an irate Trump and his right-wing base during the early days of the Trump administration, he was offered as a convenient scapegoat. A few weeks before Aslan was fired, comedian Kathy Griffin, who co-hosted CNN’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration, was also dumped after she took a photo holding a prop of Trump’s severed head.
However, CNN had no problem hiring Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, even though he was simultaneously receiving severance pay from Trump’s campaign and signed a non-disclosure agreement that would bar him from “making disparaging or revealing remarks” about Trump. During his time on the network, he promoted the racist birther conspiracy theory and defended Trump’s antisemitic tweet showing a picture of Hilary Clinton next to piles of cash and the Star of David. In 2017, Lewandowski was accused of sexual assault. In 2019, he was still invited back on CNN and cable news shows even after he boasted that he has “no obligation to be honest with the media.” It pays to be a dishonest conservative bigot who admits he lies.
Unfortunately, such grace and luxury was not afforded to Octavia Nasr, who was CNN’s senior Middle East affairs editor and with CNN over 20 years until she was fired in 2010 over one tweet. She told me she was a victim in “the early days of cancel culture, when it wasn’t even called cancel culture back then.”
She values her time at CNN, telling me that’s where she learned her journalism. “I was one of them,” she said. Until she wasn’t. Why? Because of this tweet where she wrote: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot.”
Nasr alleges she was targeted by a right-wing campaign that had already attacked her before and smeared her as an antisemite relating to reporting and coverage on Israel. Her tweet presented them a perfect opportunity, and she acknowledges she “gave [it to] them on a silver platter.” According to Nasr, they took the tweet and used it to say she supports Hezbollah.
“I’ll never support Hezbollah or say anything good about Hezbollah,” she told me. She later elaborated that she tweeted it because she acknowledged Fadlallah was an influential figure in the region, and she appreciated that he was openly against honor killings, and was eventually rejected by Hezbollah and even divided them due to some of his opinions.
The nuance and follow-up explanations didn’t matter. “CNN threw me under the bus for them. The campaign wasn’t that big. It was about less than 100 people, and they basically called CNN non-stop for about four days. Same people. Again and again. I watched the campaign online. I didn't think CNN would fall for it," she said.
CNN did fall for it and fired her. “It isn’t just about campaigning,” Nasr said. “It’s about how bloody, focused, and well-planned the campaign is.” She said there’s nothing comparable on the left.
However, they haven’t caved to pressure to fire Jeffrey Toobin, who is still employed by CNN as a senior legal analyst after exposing himself during a Zoom work call. In 2020, he was granted some time off to deal with “a personal issue.” This was not his first sexual scandal. It pays to be inappropriately creepy in 2021.
Zucker is apparently a big fan of Toobin, and he believes in second chances —except when it comes to Marc Lamont Hill. The academic and host of Al Jazeera English’s Up Front has been a vocal pro-Palestinian activist for years. In a speech at the United Nations, he called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” In those same remarks, he said, “we must advocate and promote non-violence,” and further clarified his statement in interviews saying he was calling for a binational democratic state within Israel and not the destruction of the country, consistent with his previous statements and views. Two days after his speech, CNN terminated his contract without giving a reason after a video of the clip blew up on Twitter and Hill was accused of being an antisemite.
Meanwhile, CNN has yet to make a comment about Santorum's latest outburst.
The lesson from all these examples is crystal clear for most commentators of color: You can be a nativist, a bigot, an Islamophobe, a homophobe, a creep and a liar, but as long as you’re good for the bottom line and you don’t piss off the right-wing outrage mob, you are good for cable news. If you happen to be a white conservative, like Rick Santorum, you’ll always have a blank slate to birth new controversies.