AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2011

CNN Under Fire   

Should the news outlet have cosponsored a GOP debate with the Tea Party Express? Fri., September 23, 2011

By Caitlin Johnston
Editorial assistant Caitlin Johnston (@cljohnst, cljohnst@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.      

Texas Gov. Rick Perry isn't the only one under fire this primary season. CNN is facing a flurry of questions from media critics nationwide after its decision to cosponsor a debate with the Tea Party in Florida.

On September 12, CNN partnered with the Tea Party Express to stage a debate featuring eight Republican presidential candidates. The organization is a registered political action committee that raised nearly $8 million for GOP candidates in the 2010 cycle.

"There was no doubt that that the Tea Party movement had a significant impact on the election," says Sam Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "It was clear to me that there was going to be a Tea Party debate in the 2012 cycle, and I thought CNN should be the one to broadcast it."

Feist says this concept of a media outlet partnering with a political group to sponsor a debate is nothing new, and that CNN has been doing it for as long as it has aired primary debates. "In partnering with a group, we're not endorsing their views at all, and we recognize that they have a political perspective," he says.

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."

McBride is not alone in her criticism of the arrangement. A number of other journalists and media critics also have spoken out against the CNN/Tea Party Express partnership.

"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 Society of Professional Journalists warns against such alliances in its Code of Ethics. Rule No. 1under "act independently": "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived."

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."

Feist points out that CNN maintained editorial control of the debate, chose the moderator and paid all expenses. McBride says she knows the debate was not a Tea Party event, but, nevertheless, the potential for misunderstanding threatens to undermine CNN as a news organization. "People always assign the worst motive to journalists," she says. "There were alternatives to bring debate information to the CNN audience. But the reality is they also want a piece of the action. They want that new audience tuning into CNN. And that's not a bad thing."

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."

This isn't the first time CNN has co-sponsored a debate with a political group. In 2008, the network teamed with the Congressional Black Caucus. Other news outlets, such as Fox News, CNBC and ABC News, are sponsoring debates later this year with different state Republican groups.

Not all journalists had problems with the partnership. David Zurawik, who writes about television for the Baltimore Sun, defended CNN, praising the network for its commitment to centrist credibility. "One of the primary roles of the media is to bring citizens reliable information that they can use to make informed choices in their lives, and didn't CNN (with the help of the Tea Party) do just that with this partnership?" Zurawik wrote in a September 16 column.

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."