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Quite the World, Isn't It?

CNN and its ethics problem with the Tea Party debate

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.


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