On Thursday morning, CNN analyst Jeffrey Lord joined the network's New Day show remotely from the study in his home in Camp Hill, Pa., and garnered immediate outrage when he described President Donald Trump as the "Martin Luther King of health care."
Viewers and pundits might have been shocked by his comments, but they shouldn't be surprised by the strategy CNN employs with its pro-Trump pundits such as Lord, which comes unabashedly out of the playbook of ESPN.
The popular sports network devotes serious air time to shows that basically pit one outspoken host against another. Once an outlandish statement or off-the-wall "hot take" goes viral, its merits can be debated throughout the day over the network's various television and radio programs. The more the comments are repeated, the more likely they are to be picked up and aggregated by other outlets, helping to increase CNN's reach among viewers who aren't even watching their network.
The cycle this time around began as the shock washed over the face of Symone Sanders, an African American and a CNN commentator, who reminded Lord that King led marches for civil rights because people that looked like her were being denied their basic human rights.
"So let's not equate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, to the vagina-grabbing President Donald Trump," Sanders shot back.
The awkward comparison, an attempt to draw a parallel between King's protest marches and Trump's threats to withhold payments to insurers on various Obamacare marketplaces, is the latest outlandish statement offered from the conservative pundit and former speech writer who has an uncanny ability to steer head-on into controversy.
Lord is among a cast of rotating defenders the network turns to in order to lend support to President Trump and his policies, with viewpoints that seem intended to create controversy rather than offer policy insight. CNN currently pays 12 pro-Trump contributors to defend the president during news broadcasts, a list that includes Kayleigh McEnany and Scottie Nell Hughes.
In a profile in the New York Times, CNN CEO Jeffrey Zucker described his cadre of pro-Trump panelists as "characters in a drama," with the intention of hitting a viral nerved or making a memorable appearance that can be debated over and over again throughout the day.
"Everybody says, 'Oh, I can't believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,' but you know what?" Zucker proudly asked Times reporter Jonathan Mahler. "They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are."
Zucker uses the same strategy ESPN used to make pundits such as former Inquirer columnist Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless (who now hosts his own show on Fox Sports 1) household names. Smith is encouraged to offer up sometimes bizarre sports takes that lend themselves to be debated with co-host Max Kellerman. Then, other ESPN hosts can pick up Smith's comments and argue their merits on their own shows.
If CNN was looking for drama with Lord, they certainly got their money's worth on Thursday. As the controversy over his tone-deaf comments began to swell, the outspoken pundit wrote a column posted on CNN's website where he said he made the comparison "deliberately and with reason." He was also dutifully brought back onto the network not once, but twice, to rehash his controversial statements.
Early Thursday evening, Anderson Cooper gave Lord air time to fight over his comments with CNN's Bakari Sellers, who said Lord "perverted" King's legacy with his misplace comparison between the civil right's movement and Trump's threats to hold payments.
CNN continued the debate by bringing Lord back on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, who pitted him (for the second time that day) with Sanders. Predictably, the multi-member panel, which CNN is famously fond off, devolved into a shouting match fuel by anger and bitterness, with each member, including Lemon himself, looking to extract an ounce of flesh out of the unwavering Lord.
Ultimately, Lemon became so incensed by Lord's comments he abruptly ended his show four minutes early.
As of Friday morning, links to Lord's comments and his shouting match with Don Lemon were still being featured prominently on CNN's homepage.
"The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way," Zucker said of the network's approach during the early days of the presidential campaign, even going so far as to build the types of pre-game sets that were made popular on ESPN by shows like College Gameday.
Former CNN commentator Roland Martin also saw through the ruse, and outlined on Twitter how he thinks his former network uses "nutty" pundits like Lord to garner attention from other news outlets on social media.
Regardless of the merits, the strategy of prioritizing drama over insight seems to be paying off. Thanks in large part to Trump's successful presidential campaign, CNN's average daytime audience was up more than 50 percent last year, and so far this year the trend is continuing, according to Neilsen.
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