Back in June 2007, CNN held an event with the left-wing magazine Sojourners. It wasn't exactly a "debate." It was, Brent Bozell reported, "a series of three individual interviews with (in order) John Edwards, Barack Obama, and then Hillary Clinton, all of whom were given long, flowing chunks of free air time to impress the public with an image of devout faith and compassionate wonkery." Then CNN gave another hour to the second-tier Democratic candidates to discuss their faith in their politics.
I don't recall the liberal media getting harrumphy about that arrangement, but American Journalism Review is still rounding up liberal "ethicists" and journalists to trash CNN for putting on a debate with the Tea Party Express. That, by contrast with the forgotten Sojourners event, was exploitative and "wrong," it could ruin CNN's reputation for independence, but most of it all, it somehow improperly granted "legitimacy" to a "very young and controversial" and "polarizing and ideological" group.
Caitlin Johnston, a grad student at the University of Maryland (where AJR is based), granted CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist a little space to explain CNN has been doing this for many years. So the "ethicists" have to line up on the issue of advocacy:
But teaming up to sponsor a debate is not the problem, says Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute. Instead, it's the Tea Party Express's status as a PAC. "They've partnered with the League of Women Voters and lots and lots of organizations," McBride says. "That's all well and fine. But a political action committee is expressly created to influence a process and further the agenda. That might be the difference."
Johnston may be too young to remember who the League of Women Voters were (and are) -- a liberal interest group, even if it doesn't have a PAC. Check out their current lobbying agenda. Back in their heyday of debate-sponsoring, the League was aggressively for environmentalist and nuclear disarmament causes. Then came former CBS News man Marvin Kalb to harrumph:
"I don't know if such an arrangement is unprecedented, but it is certainly being trumpeted and exploited during this presidential campaign, and it's wrong," says Marvin Kalb, former network correspondent, Murrow Professor Emeritus at Harvard and coauthor of "Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama." "News organizations should not be sponsoring political events. They should be covering political events."
...The possibility that audience members might perceive a conflict of interest on CNN's part is what's dangerous about this debate, according to McBride. "I think it runs the risk of harming their credibility," she says. "The audience could perceive the debate as a Tea Party event, meaning that CNN loses its independence."
...Ed Fouhy, former executive vice president of CBS News and executive director of the presidential debates in 1988 and 1992, says he and other journalists were appalled by CNN's decision, and would have argued strongly against entering any such relationship. Not only is it an ethical issue, he says, but it raises questions about CNN's ability to evaluate such offers and the motives behind them.
"It seems to me the Tea Party, a very young and controversial institution, used CNN's name and reputation to gain legitimacy and standing through this alliance," Fouhy says. "CNN, in short, was manipulated."
Fouhy may be onto something. A press release for the debate on the Tea Party Express's Web site asserts that the event shows the party is growing in standing and legitimacy: "The debate demonstrates that the tea party, which began as a small grassroots movement, has grown tremendously in size and influence to become a powerful force in American politics."
Just when you think AJR hasn't rounded up enough liberal dinosaurs to roar, they went and found nearby Haynes Johnson, who is almost King of the Liberal Hacks. (Case in point, these two Haynes Johnson book titles, "Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years," versus "The Best of Times: America Under Bill Clinton.")
Feist emphasizes that the event was simply a vehicle for informing Republican voters. "The purpose of the debate is to give Republican primary voters the opportunity to see their candidates side by side," he says "One of the most important things we do as journalists is help people decide who they're going to vote for as president."
Still, journalists such as Haynes Johnson, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the Washington Post and now a professor at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, say the partnership was out of line. "I think it's a terrible precedent for any legitimate news organization to partner with a political group, especially one that takes such a strong stance as the Tea Party," Johnson says. "I think we shouldn't do it, and I think it's wrong."
He adds, "I think it's a bad idea for news organizations to partner with political groups, period. I think it's even more egregious to bring in someone as polarizing and ideological as the Tea Party and give them a voice."
AJR was too busy lining up liberals to ask them about CNN and Sojourners, or any other arrangement between networks and liberal groups.
(HT: Dan Gainor)