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Chris Cillizza.jpg

But Both Sides: The Poisonous Milquetoast of Chris Cillizza

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Politics | June 30, 2017 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Politics | June 30, 2017 |

In a world of hot takes, crap-tweets and the inevitability of impending doom at the tiny hands of a cinnamon-faced despot, it can be difficult to find things that unite us in solidarity and understanding. Swimming through the interminable slime of fake news makes our days all the harder, now more so than ever as the integrity of journalism must face the callous reality of capitalism-based media. Eloquence and research is great, but does it get the clicks or keep eyes glued to the box for hours on end? When the leader of the free world is a reality TV show judge, it seems twistedly expected to ensure all such reporting is as dazzled by the gold-plated toilet as so many voters were. The age-old adage goes that politics is simply showbiz for ugly people, but now that the President of the United States seems more concerned with tweeting about the alleged facelifts of morning talk show hosts, how can any journalist maintain the necessary focus and crucial humanity to wade through this with clear eyes and a full heart?

For Chris Cillizza of CNN, the answer seems to have been to give up on all that. The former Washington Post political reporter has become an unavoidable face on the network, which has leaned harder into the false equivalence of reporting all gossip as equal to ensure a poisoned form of neutrality, some notable exceptions aside. This week, it was announced that Cillizza would have an entire CNN multi-platform brand built around him, called “The Point with Chris Cillizza”. This new venture will include “daily columns, on-air analysis, an evening newsletter, podcast, and the launch of trivia night events in Washington, DC,” according to a network release. Most of what is on this flashy new site is par for the course from Cillizza and like-minded pundits - bland commentary, Capitol Hill friendly buzzwords, glossy images - but amidst this mediocrity are glimmers of something beyond ludicrous. One particular feature, something Cillizza was proud of enough to tweet it out, was an assessment of the Senate’s chances at passing the Republicans’ healthcare bill, using emojis. Years of political work, scheming and dealing, not to forget the possibility of tens of millions of people losing their healthcare, reduced to an emoji. This shiny new investment for CNN, at a time when journalism has never been more crucial, and all he has to offer is a frowny face.

Chris Cillizza emoji.png

This is one of many aspects of Cillizza’s work and approach that attracts much ire towards him. He’s a perpetual hot take machine, bordering on parody with milquetoast insights that offer little in the way of substance or context. His Twitter account is a handily condensed form of this, with a recent example being a faux-empathetic query as to why the President, a man who has spent decades benefitting from his bigotry, doesn’t just say he’s human and makes mistakes sometimes. This is in relation to the most powerful man on the planet throwing a hissy fit over some morning news commentary on MSNBC and trying to publicly humiliate Mika Brzezinski.

The accompanying piece on The Point is expectedly bland, although it at least condemns Trump’s behaviour, yet that’s Cillizza in a nutshell - desperate to please both sides but being mocked by everyone. This is, of course, nothing new for him. Check out his insipid tweet regarding the Montana special election and the Republican candidate’s assaulting of a journalist.

Check out the golden ratio on those interactions: When your replies vastly outnumber the likes and retweets, that doesn’t tend to be a good sign, but let’s look at that tweet for a moment to understand why it’s so bad. This is a political journalist, a man whose job is to inform the people and provide a greater understanding of often complex issues, reducing a public assault to a C-List talking point. Essentially, he’s doing the GOP’s job for them, by barely acknowledging there may be a problem with a candidate choke-holding a journalist. There’s no intellect here, nor is there any humanity. For Cillizza, people’s lives are just another sport to bet on. It’s cynicism without the decency to be witty or interesting. He didn’t help his case by “apologizing” for that tweet by calling critics the “outrage police”. So goes Reddit, so goes the nation.

Cillizza’s pointless work and mockery of it is nothing new. While at the Washington Post, a parody account spring up, called @TheFixPoints, that perfectly captured the substance-free, self-congratulatory backslapping of Cillizza’s style, with his delight in turning politics into sport and absolute refusal to hop off the fence for a moment.

The creator of the parody account, in an interview with Slate, noted how Cillizza’s work seldom illuminates the viewer or reader on what’s truly going on in politics, partly because he’s too busy trying to position himself as “the political Bill Simmons.” That observation, more astute than any Cillizza has ever made, is emphasised by his target’s sloppy habit of using ham-fisted pop culture metaphors to explain legislative issues. Take, for example, his attempt to use The Big Lebowski to explain the debt ceiling. I’ve seen that film and I know what the debt ceiling is, and I came out of that piece knowing far less about both. Any editor worth their salt would have killed the piece, but for some reason, this approach is billed as modern and accessible. Condense the key points, simplify it further for the kids at the back, and explain nothing. It can work for Simmons because sport isn’t a life or death issue: With Cillizza, it feels infantilising to us all.

What also feels infantilising is Cillizza’s kid-gloves treatment of White House advisor Ivanka Trump. I’ve talked before about the ways in which the political media coddle the President’s daughter while simultaneously treating Chelsea Clinton as a beacon of suspicion, but nobody does it with such brazen hypocrisy as Cillizza. For a commentator so willing to bleed politics of its humanity, and the people by its callous deal making, he couldn’t have been more ecstatic to defend Trump’s status as an attacked daughter rather than a representative of this crooked government. Ivanka Trump is a truly insidious figure, one who cloaks herself in traditional ideals of femininity and submissiveness to disguise her vaulting ambition and complicit status in a government that actively hurts the most marginalized of its citizens (and a President who hates women). For Cillizza, it’s “bad form” to treat her as such.

We cannot discuss Cillizza without mentioning his primary fetish, and the one that hurt us most: His obsession with Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, a deathly focus that surpassed any Republican candidate’s ire. By September 2015 alone, according to Media Matters, Cillizza had written more than 50 posts that mentioned Clinton’s e-mails, breathlessly reporting on the most insignificant matters of the minute, helping it to become an unnecessary national issue. Sometimes Cillizza wouldn’t even bother to find new scandals, and he would simply repackage old stories for a fresh new day. By the following year, Cillizza had declared Clinton to be the worst Presidential candidate of the election. Not Carly Fiorina, not Marco Rubio, not Jeb! Nothing about Clinton was off-limits to Cillizza, not even her appearance, which he staunchly declared to be fair game after Cecily Strong’s White House Correspondents Dinner joke. It’s all just a game to him. A sick twisted game he’ll never truly be hurt by.
To understand Chris Cillizza, it is perhaps best to let the man speak for himself. During his time at the Washington Post, he described his mission statement as thus:

My job is to assess not the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality. I deal in the world as voters believe it is, not as I (or anyone else) thinks it should be.

That’s the problem: Perception and reality aren’t the same thing, and while it is important for pundits like Cillizza to decipher the ways in which the message is poisoned through political rhetoric and lying candidates, it’s also important to get to the truth. The voters can be wrong, as we have centuries of evidence to prove that, and using their vision as your scope to offer understanding to the world is inherently faulty. The ultimate endgame of this ethos is that the most poisonous side, the one who wins the perception game, will be the one Cillizza and journalists of his ilk treat as the default mode. At least when Trump’s team feed the world bullshit, they don’t pretend it’s a fair analysis from both sides. Chris Cillizza clearly likes politics, but that’s a problem when he likes it as if it’s a football game, where the winning and losing team shake hands then go back to their lives. Chris Cillizza wants to view the world as a game, an abstract concept where the stakes have no real consequences, and his continuing efforts to seep politics of that search for truth is simply fake news with a veil of false neutrality. It’s bad enough to be a hack, but to be such a fucking bland one is especially aggravating.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.