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CNN’s “Badass Woman” puff piece about Kellyanne Conway completely misses the point

She’s powerful because she lies. A lot.

Kellyanne Conway walking away from the White House.
Kellyanne Conway at the White House on Wednesday.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

To hear CNN tell it, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has outlasted many Trump administration officials because she’s loyal and “relentlessly on message” — positive qualities that warrant her inclusion in the network’s “Badass Women of Washington” series.

But for those of us who still care about facts, Conway is one of the world’s most shameless liars, distinguishing herself with a unique willingness to look into a camera and say anything to protect a president who traffics in misinformation.

It’s not really a matter of interpretation: Conway, who serves as one of the administration’s key spokespeople on television, is a liar and a gaslighter.

During the presidential transition, she falsely denied that anyone involved in the Trump campaign had contacts with Russia, then infamously coined the term “alternative facts” when defending Sean Spicer’s lies about Trump’s inauguration crowd size. Since then, she’s made up whole stories out of thin air — like a fake “Bowling Green massacre” to stoke fears about Muslims, or a fake scandal about Barack Obama bugging Trump using “microwaves” that she concocted in an attempt to justify the president’s baseless claims about wiretapping in Trump Tower. In a shocking moment earlier this week, Conway used a Fox & Friends interview to urge people to read the white nationalist manifesto written by the gunman who allegedly shot up mosques in New Zealand.

Yet next to none of this sordid history made it into CNN’s puff piece. Instead, Conway is portrayed as an almost heroic figure. The network even shared the story, bylined by Dana Bash and Bridget Nolan, on social media with the hashtag #BadassWomenDC.

Later Wednesday, CNN shared an accompanying video from its main Twitter account in a tweet that by Thursday morning had 12,000 replies, compared to less than 400 retweets.

The piece is part of a long-running series by CNN’s Dana Bash about “Badass Women of Washington,” an upbeat project that highlights women in positions of power. A CNN spokesman told Vox that the series, first launched in the summer of 2017, “highlights the energy, perspective, and determination of these women and the role they play in reshaping power centers in a man’s town.

“The women featured come from a wide range of backgrounds, generations, and political affiliations, but each has shattered glass ceilings on her way up the ranks,” added the CNN spokesperson. “The series is nonpartisan and has featured women across the political spectrum.”

Celebrating powerful women is certainly a worthy endeavor. But in the case of Conway, CNN’s coverage doesn’t grapple with the reason she’s been able to survive in Trumpworld as long as she has: She’s willing to lie, and she’s willing to lie a lot.

There aren’t two sides to lying

CNN’s piece begins by describing Conway as a “survivor” who is “reliably defending her boss, no matter what the circumstances.” It discusses the trials and tribulations she experienced growing up in New Jersey with a mother who raised her with help from Conway’s grandmother and great aunts.

What the story barely touches upon, however, is Conway’s well-earned reputation for telling flagrant and outrageous lies.

The part of the story that’s most critical of Conway euphemistically characterizes her this way:

[S]he is relentlessly on message. It is her calling card. But she is also heavily criticized for sometimes taking it too far — entering the realm of alternative facts, a term she now-infamously used on NBC’s “Meet The Press” in 2017, days after Trump was sworn in. She was trying to defend and explain the President’s obsession with — and inaccurate claims about — his inauguration crowd size.

Even here, truth and lies are treated as two sides of the same coin.

Those moments have made Conway a polarizing figure. People love to love her, and they love to hate her.

The reality is that most of Conway’s critics do not “hate her,” but abhor the leading role she plays in poisoning public discourse — putting her in the same category as the aforementioned Spicer and his successor as press secretary, Sarah Sanders.

If anyone should know better, CNN should

CNN, of all outlets, should understand why Conway is such a lightning rod for criticism. She has used her semi-regular appearances on the network to deflect from Trump’s lies with further obfuscation and take cheap shots at the network the president routinely demeans as “fake news.”

Her recent appearances on Chris Cuomo’s primetime show routinely devolve into WWE-style wrestling matches, as Cuomo tries to hold her accountable for misleading and false statements.

CNN has come under pressure to stop booking Conway for interviews, since she stands by false statements even when they’re aggressively fact-checked by hosts. And Conway’s boss routinely demeans and attacks CNN. In 2017, Trump even tweeted a video of him clotheslining the network.

Last October, a deranged Trump fan sent package bombs to CNN’s New York City office. And yet the network gave Conway the puff piece treatment anyway.

Reached for comment by Vox, CNN stood by its story, citing Conway’s role as the first woman to run a successful presidential campaign and her long tenure as one of Trump’s top White House staffers.

But those things aren’t worth celebrating in a vacuum. What Conway does with her power matters. Instead of using her taxpayer-funded platform to inform and uplift, Conway defends a president who traffics in hate and misinformation with a willingness to say anything — even if it means insisting that doctored footage the White House spread to demonize a CNN reporter wasn’t really doctored.

Conway is an important figure and deserves to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t mean holding her up uncritically as a figure of adoration. She deserves skeptical and fair coverage, not puff pieces that twist lying into a virtue.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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