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Donie O'Sullivan.CNN

The events of January 6, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, are still being argued about, often fiercely. Exactly what happened and who was responsible is the subject of ceaseless debate on the American news channels – and that won’t end soon.

What a lot of people remember about that day, if they were watching CNN, is a short, stocky guy with an Irish accent approaching those present and asking a simple question: “Are you proud of what happened here today?” The answers he received say more about the state of things in the U.S. than the many months of bickering among pundits on cable news.

That guy was Donie O’Sullivan, and he’s the best thing about CNN right now. The channel has just been through an ugly upheaval following the firing of prime-time host Chris Cuomo and events surrounding that. Fox News and MSNBC are experiencing their own tumult of resignations, accusations and misfiring potshots at each other. Into this arena of great hatreds, where there is little room for common sense, wit or plain-spokenness, steps the Irishman who looks and sounds like the least-likely cable-news star.

What sets O’Sullivan apart is his calmness, sly wit and an inherent ability to disarm aggressively anti-media Trump fanatics, conspiracy theorists and spreaders of disinformation. He emerges as the only sane person in the situation when he’s sent out to meet with Trump supporters and misinformation peddlers and document what they believe.

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He does it with something that does not conform to the cliché of “Irish charm.” Forensically smart and with a keen sense of the ridiculous, he reminds me of some Irish people I have known all my life. They come from farms and villages, are friendly but skeptical, often exasperated by pretension and anything they see as preposterous. They don’t have their head in the clouds; they have their feet on the ground – and something in Irish culture, with its vast reservoir of storytelling, makes them warm yet wary of vanity in themselves and others. With O’Sullivan, though, there’s something beyond that at work.

O’Sullivan has been with CNN since 2016. A researcher before he went on-camera, he was nominated for an Emmy Award last year for his reporting on how a U.S. military reservist ended up at the centre of a bizarre COVID-19 patient-zero online conspiracy theory. The place where politics and the online world meet has been his specialty for years.

Born in the tiny County Kerry town of Cahersiveen (population 1,041), he was schooled there and worked in his father’s fish shop. Later, he did an arts degree at University College Dublin and then a Master's degree in political science at Queen’s University Belfast. Back in Dublin, during a period when he says he suffered from depression and anxiety – something he got help for, and says he still does to this day – he got a job with Storyful, a company founded by an Irish journalist and described as “a social media intelligence agency.” (The company was later acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, owners of Fox News.) That’s where he specialized in social media tools, manipulation and disinformation.

At CNN, it became his area. When it emerged from the Mueller Report that social media had in fact been used by Russia to interfere in the 2016 American presidential election, O’Sullivan was deeply involved in CNN’s research on the matter. On-air hosts began asking him to appear on their shows to explain the related issues, and he did – with increasing confidence and a knack for straight-talking language, mixed with rueful amazement about online shenanigans, something that endeared him to viewers.

Since then he’s traipsed around the U.S., armed with his smile, expertise, ability to get people to talk to him and a talent for asking “Why?” or “Why not?” at just the right moment. He’s covered misinformation about the 2020 election, voter fraud, and the pandemic. He’s been shouted at by Mike Lindell (the MyPillow guy), sworn at by Trump supporters and been subject to ominous warnings from angry fringe groups. He always remains unruffled and unafraid.

In Ireland, he’s a celebrity now. In a revealing interview with the Irish Times earlier this year, he said his job is to figure out the stories of the people he’s interviewing. “After going through my own thing,” he said, referring to his mental-health struggles, “I genuinely try and understand and listen to people in terms of why they believe this stuff. Do I fact-check them? Yes. Do we call them out? Yes. But I think the listening part is important.”

That’s his secret, really: just sympathetically listening to – and trying to understand – the madness in U.S. politics.

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