MRC Study: CNN's Tea Party Debate More Fair Than NBC News/Politico Hatchet Job

The left is already out attacking last night's CNN Tea Party debate, with the New York Times leading the way as it cried "the first event hosted jointly by a major news organization and a Tea Party group" has "left some questioning whether the network had gone too far in reaching for centrist credibility." That charge only makes sense in a liberal world view that thought Brian Williams' biased performance at last week's NBC News/Politico debate was somehow soft and uncontroversial.

In fact there were far more liberal questions (13) to the GOP candidates at this Tea Party debate than there were conservative-oriented questions at the NBC News debate last week (just one). The Tea Party gets credit for helping restore balance to the agenda, but it's not like liberal ideas were shut out.

A study of the questions asked at both debates does show Blitzer was more balanced than Williams, in part, because he was involved in a forum where Tea Partiers themselves were able to ask questions of the GOP candidates. Whereas Williams, along with the Politico's John Harris, were able to run rampant with one question after another from the left.

A review of the 54 total questions asked by Williams and Harris to the Republican candidates shows that 25 of them came from the left, with just one from the right. Twenty-eight questions were neutral. So of those questions with an agenda almost all of them (96 percent) were from the left (4 percent from the right).

In contrast, a review of the 62 total questions posed to GOP candidates at the CNN debate shows only 13 of them came from the left, 21 from the right, with 28 being neutral. So of questions with an agenda 62 percent were from the right, 38 percent were from the left. However, it should be noted that since this debate was sponsored by the Tea Party seven questions from the right were asked by Tea Partiers themselves. Of the questions asked by Blitzer 14 were from the right and 13 from the left, with 28 being neutral.

While Williams and Harris lobbed one loaded lefty question after the next at GOP candidates, at their respective debate, Blitzer for the most part, asked straightforward questions or threw to Tea Partiers in the audience, and then just stood by as the candidates responded.

Blitzer's opening questioning was typical:

BLITZER: Let's start off here in Tampa. We have a Tea Party activist. Please identify yourself and ask your question.

TEA PARTIER: My question: How will you convince senior citizens that Social Security and Medicare need to be changed and get their vote?

BLITZER: Good question. Let me begin with Michele Bachmann. Congresswoman, how do you do that? How do you go ahead and change, reform Social Security, Medicare, while at the same time getting votes?

Blitzer then asked follow-ups of the candidates that spurred back and forth exchanges, that while occasionally led to Republicans fighting each other, also allowed each candidate to further explain their similarities and differences with their primary opponents.

This was a far cry from Williams, who instead set out to hammer individual Republicans with liberal agenda questions that tried to depict the GOP candidates as somehow cartoonishly out of step with mainstream values. As was the case with Williams' line of questioning of Texas Governor Rick Perry, as noticed by the MRC's Brent Baker.

"Williams hit Texas Governor Rick Perry from the left on his state's poor economic indicators ("no other state has more working at or below the minimum wage"), chastised him for cutting education funding and, citing how 'your state has executed 234 death row inmates,' demanded to know whether he's 'struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?'

Williams was taken aback when the audience applauded Perry's death penalty record, prompting a befuddled Williams to follow up: 'What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?'"

Even though, unlike Williams, Blitzer was able to have actual conservative Tea Partiers ask questions directly of the candidates, Blitzer, himself, did manage to sneak in some questions from the left.

Like when he asked Congresswoman Michele Bachmann the following:

"The Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, which went across the board, were not offset with spending cuts, and as a result, potentially, a lot of economists think, the deficit went up and up and up."

 


Blitzer also pressed former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich if he would compromise with Democrats:

"Jobs, jobs, jobs.  All of us who covered you when you were Speaker — and you worked with President Clinton at the time — you compromised, he compromised, you got things done. There was a budget surplus for as far as the eye could see.

If you were president, would you work with the Democrats, assuming they were the majority in the House or the Senate? Would you compromise with them on some of these gut issues?"

A little bit later Blitzer asked Gingrich about the fairness of tax breaks for corporations:

"Speaker Gingrich, some of the biggest companies in the United States, the oil companies, they got — I guess some would call government handouts in the form of tax breaks, tax exemptions, loopholes.  They’re making billions and billions of dollars. Is that fair?"

Not all of the outside questions came from Tea Partiers, as Blitzer selected the following query submitted to CNN's Web site:

"We have a question via CNNPolitics.com.  'All of you profess to be pro-business candidates for president.  Can you be pro-worker at the same time?'"

Blitzer was also similar to Williams in how he treated Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Back in the NBC News debate Williams attempted to make Paul's libertarian views on domestic issues look outside of the mainstream as he asked:

"Congressman Paul, a long time ago, a fellow Texan of yours, a young student teacher in Cotulla, Texas, was horrified to see young kids coming into the classroom hungry, some of them with distended bellies because of hunger. He made a vow that if he had anything to do about it the government would provide meals, hot meals at best, in schools. The young student teacher, of course, later went on to be President Lyndon Johnson. Do you think that is any more -- providing nutrition in schools for children -- a role of the federal government?"

Blitzer took a similar tone with Paul when he asked the following question about health care:

"You're a physician, Ron Paul, so you're a doctor. You know something about this subject.  Let me ask you this hypothetical question.

A healthy 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides, you know what?  I'm not going to spend $200 or $300 a month for health insurance because I’m healthy, I don't need it. But something terrible happens, all of a sudden he needs it.

Who's going to pay if he goes into a coma, for example?  Who pays for that?"

In the end Blitzer turned out to be the fairer moderator, perhaps, because he was partnered with the Tea Party. However, in the NBC debate viewers saw what kind of left wing assault can occur when the questions and topics are left strictly to the likes of Brian Williams.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.