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How CNN Shapes Political Debate

By       Message Ray McGovern     Permalink
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Reprinted from Consortium News

From flickr.com/photos/28435100@N00/15003876624/: CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer
CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer
(image by nordique)
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CNN, the sponsor of Tuesday's debate among Democratic presidential candidates, has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid being sullied with the stigma of "liberal bias." The four CNN journalists handpicked to do the questioning have carefully protected themselves from such a charge.

As Jeff Cohen noted Friday in "CNN's Double Standards on Debates," CNN made a point of including a bona fide right-winger in the Republican debate but "is not planning to include a single progressive advocate among its panel of four questioners ... CNN presents as neutral: CNN's [Dana] Bash and three CNN anchors (Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, and Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Espanol.)"

The significance is that while a person from the Right or Left might break out of the usual frame of these debates, "mainstream" panelists can be counted on to ask predictable queries with maybe a "gotcha" question or two tossed in to show how "tough" the reporter can be. CNN's line-up fits that description to a tee.

Dana Bash, who was also a panelist at last month's debate among Republican candidates, has been a godsend to me as I hunted for examples to illustrate what has become of the so-called "mainstream media." Speaking to college and other audiences, I often show this short but revealing video clip of Bash plying her "neutral" trade.

Perhaps you will agree that, although less than a minute long, this clip is worth far more than a thousand words in making clear how CNN crackerjack reporters like Dana Bash and CNN senior statesman Wolf Blitzer apply their peculiar brand of "fair and balanced."

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What leaps out is how they, and their acutely attentive technical support, were prepared at a second's notice to nip in the bud any favorable (or merely "neutral") allusion to Iran, on the one hand, and any possibly negative reference to Israel, on the other.

In Iowa, reporting on the Republican caucus 3-1/2 years ago, Bash singled out Army Cpl. Jesse Thorsen for an interview. The young soldier sported on his neck a large tattoo of the Twin Towers with the words "9/11 Remember" -- making Thorsen seem an ideal candidate for the kind of "neutral" -- super-patriotic -- interview that Bash had in mind.

Although he supported libertarian Ron Paul, this young corporal on his way to his third deployment to Afghanistan looked like an easy mark for a fast-talking reporter whose "neutrality" was infused with Official Washington's disdain for Paul's anti-interventionist stance on foreign policy.

Pointing to the tattoo, Bash closed in for the kill, suggesting Ron Paul would endanger U.S. security if he pulled troops out of conflict areas like Afghanistan. Alas, Thorsen had not been briefed on the intended script, and the encounter did not work out the way Bash expected. The young soldier went off message into dangerous territory, mentioning -- or, rather, trying to mention -- Iran and Israel in ways that didn't mesh with what all the Important People know to be true: Iran always bad, Israel always good.

Just in the nick of time, there was a fortunate glitch cutting off the discordant message. Or as Blitzer explained, "we just lost our technical connection, unfortunately."

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Personal Experience

For good or ill, I have had some rather instructive personal experience with two of the other three panelists on CNN's all-star team for Tuesday evening -- Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon. Those experiences might help potential viewers know what to expect as the Democrats go under their magnifying glasses.

Minutes after the impromptu four-minute Q & A debate I had with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on May 4, 2006 in Atlanta -- in which I challenged Rumsfeld about his false pre-war claims about Iraqi links to Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's possession of WMD -- I got a call on my cell phone from CNN star Anderson Cooper. He noted that I had been causing "quite a stir here in Atlanta," adding that he wanted to interview me that evening.

"But first," he said in an awkwardly halting way, "I need to ask you a question. "Er ... weren't you afraid?"

Not really, I replied. The experience was, rather, a real high. I went on to suggest that Cooper could experience the same high, were he to do a little homework and ask folks like Rumsfeld pointed questions -- quoting them back to themselves, whenever possible.

The Rumsfeld speech and Q &A that followed took place in the early afternoon of May 4, 2006, and was broadcast live. So, in a sense, it fit with the perfect storm for that night's evening news. It was early enough to fit the evening TV "news" cycle; there was time to check facts; it was a live exchange of a citizen confronting a powerful official, something that is disturbingly rare in modern America; and it happened on a slow news day when there wasn't some other story that dominated public attention.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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