Jeffrey Lord is a political hack and shameless troll who spent the past two years wasting America’s time on CNN as one of the world’s dumbest and most slavishly pro-Trump pundits. He appeared regularly on CNN’s political programming as one of Donald Trump’s chief water-bearers, playing the part so well that Anderson Cooper once felt compelled to note—on air!—that Trump could defecate on his desk and Lord would defend it. Cooper’s crude observation was wholly accurate: Lord’s only qualifications for being on television were his readiness to applaud even Trump’s most noxious moments and the fact that he already owned a suit.
CNN fired Lord on Thursday, after a dumb and trollish Twitter feud culminated with Lord tweeting “Sieg Heil!” at the president of Media Matters. The incident was completely in character for Lord, who is the human equivalent of one of those “peeing Calvin” stickers—over the course of his CNN tenure, he seconded Trump’s pre-election warnings of a potentially “stolen” election, called the KKK “a leftist terrorist organization,” suggested that the Gold Star family Trump insulted on the campaign trail was asking for it, and told Ana Navarro that “I don’t think you’re a Latino”—as well as for CNN, which is happy to have its personalities indirectly champion the president’s vacuous pseudo-fascism on air just as long as they refrain from saying “Sieg Heil” on Twitter.
Lord will not be missed, either by viewers or by the network itself, which will inevitably find some other disingenuous lickspittle to fill Lord’s seat on its panel shows. Even so, this was a pretty dumb reason to fire Lord. He wasn’t saluting Hitler; he was calling the Media Matters guy a Nazi. It was, generously, a bad joke. The only thing dumber than how Lord left the network, in fact, is how he got there in the first place.
As the New York Times reported in April, Lord first came to CNN’s attention in 2015, when the network was having trouble finding anyone—literally anyone—who would defend Trump’s then–long shot candidacy on TV. At that point, Trump’s bilious rhetoric hadn’t been validated by any primary wins, and no credible person was willing to risk his or her reputation to support a polarizing bigot with no evident path to victory.
According to the Times, this didn’t stop Trump from whining to CNN “that his interviews on the network were always followed by conversations among panelists who all seemed to hate him.” CNN’s response was classic:
The network asked Trump to suggest the names of some people who would defend him. One of those whom he mentioned was Jeffrey Lord.
So, to summarize, after Donald Trump complained to CNN that the network wasn’t being nice enough to him, CNN responded not just by letting him propose some people who would be nice to him, but by actually putting one of them on television ad nauseam. It’s sad but not surprising. If CNN’s political-commentary programming stands for anything, it is for cheerful acquiescence to the demands of the powerful in the name of false balance.
False balance, in the way I mean the term, refers to the flawed journalistic impulse to give each side of an argument equal time and weight regardless of each side’s relative standing to facts and truth. False balance is a hallmark of bad journalism, and the unmerited elevation of crackpots’ bad opinions is a hallmark of false balance. I do not mean to suggest that an unpopular opinion is necessarily a bad one. Popular history is rife with Galileo situations where lone truth tellers are thwarted by establishment forces. But Jeffrey Lord is not one of these people. Jeffrey Lord is a marginal gadfly who was free to appear on CNN so often because he literally had nothing else to do.
In that same Times piece, CNN chairman Jeff Zucker responded to complaints of Lord’s awfulness by saying that everyone knows who he is—that, in effect, Lord’s ubiquity was evidence of his merit. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Everyone once knew who Joe Isuzu was, too. Everyone knows who Balloon Boy is. Lord was on TV because he was well-known, but Lord was only well-known because he was on TV. Lord’s fame had nothing to do with any real-world accomplishments or merit. It was entirely due to CNN putting him on the air for two years. No one remembered his work in the Reagan administration, or his magazine articles and op-eds, or the “unpublished thrillers and screenplays” that he wrote from his home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
The problem with Jeffrey Lord wasn’t that he was awful. It was that CNN didn’t care he was awful—or, rather, that CNN said, Our political programming will not be complete until we find an analyst who is really, really awful, and then put him on air constantly in the name of “balance.” This impulse is the most insidious form of, yes, fake news: cable networks’ habit of hiring superficially articulate frauds and fakers to interpret the news, in the process falsely equating their bad opinions with informed people’s good ones and creating a space where nothing means anything and fame is equated with moral standing. Lord spent two years disguising his advocacy as analysis and cashing CNN’s paychecks in the process, and CNN was all too happy to let him do it. Now he’s gone, but not really, because there is an endless supply of Jeffrey Lords out there. There is no real escape. We will never be saved.