CNN has responded to criticism from FAIR activists of its debate partnership with the Tea Party Express, rejecting the idea that there was anything questionable about its cooperation with the far-right racist organization.
The problem with CNN's Tea Party debate was not that it had a co-sponsor; anyone who has watched a presidential debate knows that this is often the case.
The issue is what sort of group a journalistic outlet pairs itself with, and what that relationship involves. As FAIR documented in the alert, CNN was not merely allowing another group to endorse its debate, which is generally what co-sponsorship entails. The Tea Party Express was essentially a co-producer--helping to frame the issues, select the audience members and pose questions directly to the candidates via the Tea Party viewing parties CNN facilitated around the country.
That level of coordination does not exist at other presidential debates. The Congressional Black Caucus debate between Democratic candidates (1/21/08) mentioned by CNN, for instance, was a fairly typical example of how this works. The event was held on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, something the candidates mentioned. But the event itself was not especially geared toward concerns of the black community. In fact, Wolf Blitzer announced at the top of the event that the campaign was "a historic Democratic contest that has confronted issues of race and transcended them."
And comparing any of these groups to the Tea Party Express is problematic. The Express has, as FAIR pointed out, amassed a remarkably racist track record in a short amount of time--so much so that it was kicked out of the Tea Party Federation, the main Tea Party umbrella group.
The network might want to argue that this debate was like any other, but most people who watched it could appreciate the difference. Sarah Palin, for one, praised CNN during an interview on Fox News Channel (TVNewser, 9/14/11):
If CNN's intent was to validate the Tea Party movement, it succeeded. If it was hoping to serve as an independent journalistic moderator of an election event, however, it failed.