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CNN and its ethics problem with the Tea Party debate

September 12, 2011

Tags: current events, politics, press

There's another debate tonight among the main candidates for the Republican Party presidential nomination, part of what will seem an endless series, no doubt. But this one is bothersome from the standpoint of journalistic ethics. (See my followup post On CNN, the Tea Party, and blogosphere blowback).

Why is CNN teaming up with a splinter political movement - the Tea Party - to sponsor a debate?

It's bad enough that the main presidential debates, once the two major party candidates have been chosen, are self-selected affairs run by the Democratic and Republican parties. The media accede to this construct, which baffles me, given the implied message it sends that the media perceive the Democrats and Republicans as the only parties worth hearing from. Under the rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates (the nonprofit the parties operate to attract primarily corporate donors and fund the debates), only candidates who have drawn at 15 percent support in five national polls are eligible.

But our role as journalists should make that objectionable - the two major parties in effect stage a political show, and the media goes along with the self-selection as a fait accompli (and I have covered my share of those). So the media coverage becomes an affirmation of the political process instead of dissecting it, objectively and independently, from the outside. We should be telling voters about the disparate voices and viewpoints, not serve as an echo chamber for the two major ones.

But tonight's debate from Florida goes even farther down the ethical hole. A major cable network is teaming up with a political splinter group as an (apparent) equal partner in a televised event. CNN didn't team up with political progressives, who helped shape the 2008 presidential campaign, during that election cycle. Yet here it is proudly teaming up with the Tea Partiers (who, they keep telling us, aren't even an identifiable group, but a shared mindset). My guess is CNN is more interested in wresting viewers from Fox than in maintaining its own credibility.

It is through independence that journalists maintain our legitimacy, and our (fading) credibility. Not by sharing our outlets' names on banners with the entities and people we are supposed to be covering. This is basic ethics: Don't share the bed with the subjects of your journalism.


  1. September 13, 2011 10:40 AM PDT
    Haven't there been Moveon.org sponsored Democratic debates? Appreciate your points here, but I don't believe cosponsoring a political debate is akin to sharing a bed. CNN doesn't have a lot of respect from conservative voters, and the tea party, like it or not, is popular with conservatives and a morbid fascination among liberals.

    Gots to sell that advertising!
    - Nick Mendez
  2. September 13, 2011 10:47 AM PDT
    I don't recall MoveOn being co-sponsors of a debate with a media outlet, but if it has, that was wrong, too. News organizations should not partner up with the people they cover. Period. Whether CNN is popular among conservatives is irrelevant to the issue, but I'm guessing it was significant to CNN's decision to climb in bed with them. Key, here, is the political views of the organizations doesn't matter; what matters is a media outlet joining them. It's bad journalism ethics, and bad practice.
    - Scott Martelle
  3. September 14, 2011 5:15 AM PDT
    Ethics problem? Really? It's more un-ethical to report from only one slant as most journalists do. A TRUE journalist leaves out their own bias and opinions and reports STRICTLY on what is ACTUALLY happening. Regardless of what they believe or how they 'feel'. Sorry bout that, but that's the TRUTH, or maybe I missed that part in high school journalism. But then again, being balanced or fair doesn't sell or increase ratings does it. So which is it that matters most. Truth or greed? Is it only when you 'become somebody' that you can break from that? I was concerned at first that CNN would slant the questions, but to be honest, they did an extremely professional job. Perhaps that's what bothers you, busted with your own bias.
    - don
  4. September 14, 2011 7:14 AM PDT
    Don, you miss my point. No media organization should partner with the people/organizations it is covering. CNN should not have teamed with the Tea Party. They should not team with the progressives. They should not accede in letting the Democratic-Republican presidential debate commission determine who is qualified to be part of the presidential debates. The media should not be a part of the process, but should report on it from a skeptical distance.
    - Scott Martelle
  5. September 15, 2011 9:01 AM PDT
    Ahhhhh Scottie has his feelings hurt that a group that does reflect the thoughts of MOST American's actually had their voices heard. When we hear liberal voices on MOST major networks daily, his panties are in a bunch over this. You know what's great Scottie? That liberalism is losing the battle's AND the war. People all over the world are seeing and are victims of liberal/progressive policies. It's on a downward slide and I hope we can finally kick it off the cliff for a few generations.
    - Timmeh
  6. September 15, 2011 10:23 AM PDT
    Timmeh, like Don above, you missed the point of my post. It doesn't matter which political party/entity is involved, a media outlet should not partner with them, left right or center. Media should not be in bed with the folks they purportedly are covering. Go ahead and cover a Tea Party event; don't sponsor it with them. Go ahead and cover a Green Party event, but don't sponsor it with them. Cover the major parties' presidential debates, but don't sit on their panels asking questions.

    Instead, the media should be holding their own series of debates and determining by their own criteria who should be heard from, and who is relevant to the discussion.
    - Scott Martelle
  7. September 17, 2011 10:47 AM PDT
    "Through extensive research and interviews with major financial insiders, politicians and journalists, INSIDE JOB traces the rise of a rogue industry and unveils the corrosive relationships which have corrupted politics, regulation and academia." http://www.sonyclassics.com/insidejob/

    In short...

    "There can be no press freedom when journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty and fear."
    - Aidan White, journalist and former General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists

    Thanks for the opportunity (and freedom) to express my opinion.
    Kurt D. Hamman, Lieutenant Commander USN(Ret.)
    - Kurt D. Hamman
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About me

A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.

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