In this instance, the rhetorical atrocity was almost too easy to dismantle. “To correct the record, what European colonizers found in the Americas were thousands of complex, sophisticated, and sovereign Tribal Nations, each with millennia of distinct cultural, spiritual and technological development,” wrote Fawn Sharp, president of the National Council of American Indians. “Over millennia, they bred, cultivated and showed the world how to utilize such plants as cotton, rubber, chocolate, corn, potatoes, tomatoes and tobacco. Imagine the history of the United States without the economic contributions of cotton and tobacco alone. It’s inconceivable.” Other such denunciations have cropped up since news of the comments surfaced on Monday.
Rick Santorum isn’t just a former senator, though; he’s a CNN contributor, meaning that he gets paid to appear on the network and comment on the news. The Erik Wemple Blog, accordingly, asked CNN whether it had any comment on the situation. A while later, we received a note from a private PR firm: ”It was referred to me that you were inquiring regarding a statement from former Senator Rick Santorum regarding a recent speech he gave to the Young America’s Foundation. Please attribute the following to former Senator Santorum: ‘I had no intention of minimizing or in any way devaluing Native American culture.’”
Intent surely matters in situations such as this one; so do apologies, and Santorum’s statement stops short of that. As for his employer, CNN itself didn’t provide the Erik Wemple Blog with a comment on the situation. Perhaps the network thinks it can stay silent because the offending remarks took place in a non-CNN venue. If that’s the excuse, we’re not buying. In signing Santorum as a CNN contributor, the network associates itself with his remarks whether they appear on the network, Twitter or any other public platforms. Had a Fox News contributor made similar remarks in a non-Fox News setting, you can be sure CNN would have a thing or 20 to say about it.
Contributors are a mainstay of cable news, a medium that has never been able to break out of its dependence on time-killing panel discussions. They receive six-figure salaries for platitudes about politics and society, plus the occasional offensive remark that makes the rounds on media-watchdog sites. Following the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., Santorum criticized students who were banding together for gun reform: “How about kids, instead of looking to someone else to solve their problem, do something about maybe taking CPR classes or trying to deal with situations that when there is a violent shooter that you can actually respond to that?” He later backtracked.
The two-time Republican presidential candidate filled his political career with enough offensive bile such that CNN had to know what it was getting when it signed him to a contract in 2017. As a CNN commentator, Santorum didn’t disgrace himself to the extremes of the network’s band of hard-line Trump sycophants. After Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, Santorum tried to steer a middle course between sanity — Trump lost the election — and partisanship — not pounding the Republicans too much for their anti-democratic activities. “Democracy is working. It’s working — it’s working today,” said Santorum on Dec. 14, after the electoral college cast its presidential votes. “I don’t see any Republican blocking that democracy from working. So I think the narrative that somehow Republicans have abandoned all their sanity and have thrown in with Donald Trump just doesn’t fit with the facts of what we’re seeing happening today.” A CNN colleague pointed out that more than 100 Republicans backed a Texas lawsuit to overturn the free and fair election.
As the Republican Party continues its indulgence with the politics of Trump, it’ll be harder and harder for an outlet like CNN to find Republican contributors who don’t offend people of color, democratic imperatives or just general decency. What better impetus to scratch the entire model of contributor-driven news: CNN hires plenty of journalists who’d be happy to fill Santorum’s airtime with facts, reporting, quotes, data, whatever — anything but the contributor-analyst model. No one needs 24/7 news channels anyhow.