Sep
16
2011

CNN Responds to Activists on Tea Party Alliance

Says partnership was not unusual--ignoring all the ways it was

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.

Asked by media columnist Richard Prince (Journal-isms, 9/12/11) to respond to FAIR's September 12 Action Alert, a CNN spokesperson replied:

During the primary debate season it's not unusual for news organizations to partner with groups who are part of the coalition of that party.... CNN has partnered in the past with the Florida GOP (2007) and the Nevada Democratic Party (2008). CNN has also partnered with the Congressional Black Caucus, SCLC [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] as well as BIPEC [the South Carolina Business and Industry Political Education Committee].

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):

The hook-up with a major news network, CNN--and more power to CNN for allowing that validation of this grassroots Tea Party movement, participants from all over the nation being able, as a voice of "we the people," asking questions of these potential presidents. Very, very wonderful debate in terms of the whole forum and the venue that was chosen. The winner in this really, I believe, was the Tea Party movement, and validation of what it is that we've been talking about for two years now.

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.