CNN, which likes to boast that it's America's non-ideological cable news network, revealed in its Republican presidential debate collaboration with the Tea Party Express the hidden political reality behind "centrist" journalism -- a never-ending pandering to the Right.
The basic truth about mainstream journalism is that the careerists who dominate the national news media are keenly attuned to where the worst career dangers lie and steer away accordingly. And, by far, the biggest risk to a journalist's career is to be deemed "liberal" by the Right's powerful attack machine.
So, while CNN would surely recoil from a suggestion that it co-sponsor a Democratic debate with, say, Moveon.org, the "No Bias, No Bull" network saw no problem in associating its journalistic credibility with the far-right Tea Party.
Similar tendencies in the U.S. news media can be noted in everything from the endless fawning over Ronald Reagan's glorious legacy to the reliably pro-war tilt of most key news outlets, as underscored in an article on Sunday by the New York Times former executive editor Bill Keller. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Who Are These People?"]
Among mainstream journalists, there is almost no career danger from offending the American Left because it is viewed as essentially powerless, lacking any significant media clout of its own.
However, the Right has invested heavily both in building its own media infrastructure and financing anti-journalism attack groups. Together, they boast many scalps, including those of former CBS anchor Dan Rather and his courageous producer Mary Mapes (who broke the Abu Ghraib prison scandal but was undone for a segment questioning George W. Bush's National Guard record).
So, career-savvy mainstream journalists carefully position themselves so as not to get in the Right's firing line.
Earning Right-Wing "Cred'
In that regard, it's useful to have some specific right-tilted story -- or event -- to point to, just in case a right-wing critic decides to target you as a "liberal." CNN, which the Right has sometimes smeared as the "Communist News Network," can now cite its collaboration with the Tea Party as valuable right-wing "cred."
When I was working at PBS "Frontline" in the early 1990s, senior producers would sometimes order up pre-ordained right-wing programs -- such as a show denouncing Cuba's Fidel Castro -- to counter Republican attacks on the documentary series for programs the Right didn't like, such as Bill Moyers' analysis of the Iran-Contra scandal.
In essence, the idea was to inject right-wing bias into some programming as "balance" to other serious journalism, which presented facts that Republicans found objectionable. That way, the producers could point to the right-wing show to prove their "objectivity" and, with luck, deter GOP assaults on PBS funding.
Similarly, in the 1980s, New York Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal vowed to steer the newspaper back to "the center" -- by which he meant to the right -- to counter criticism that the Times' role in publishing the Vietnam War's "Pentagon Papers" and Seymour Hersh's reporting on CIA abuses amounted to "liberal bias."
So, CNN's behavior fits into a larger pattern which has frequently denied the American people the relevant facts and the clear analysis that are needed in a democratic society -- because to do otherwise would invite devastating right-wing attacks on the journalists.
While such story slanting is unprofessional at all times, this journalistic cowardice is particularly dangerous at times of crisis and war. Yet, it is precisely at those moments when the careerist journalists are most sensitive to the dangers of being smeared as unpatriotic or un-American.
For instance, in the 2002-03 run-up to war in Iraq, CNN and nearly all the major U.S. news outlets became little more than press agents for President Bush, promoting his bogus war rationales almost without question.
When former U.S. weapons inspector Scott Ritter tried to warn the country that Iraq had already gotten rid of its unconventional weapons, CNN's Wolf Blitzer and other media stars challenged Ritter about whether he was a secret agent of Saddam Hussein or whether he allegedly had propositioned an under-aged girl on the Internet.