Everyone knows that elections in the US are not occasions for exploring and clarifying issues and policies, but something more similar to a sporting event between competing athletes. All media outlets know this, but none practice it with greater conviction than CNN.
During the Democratic presidential debate on January 14, in a bizarre line of questioning on a bit of campaign gossip reported third-hand, CNN’s moderators sought to get to the bottom of what they saw as the major issue of the day. This towering issue concerned whether Bernie Sanders had, during a private meeting toward the end of 2018, told Elizabeth Warren that “he believed a woman could not win” the presidency.
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During the debate organized and broadcast by CNN, moderator Abby Phillip first addressed Senator Sanders, citing the rumor and claiming that Warren had confirmed it: “In 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?” Sanders immediately denied having said it and explained why it made no sense.
Up to that point, the only commentary Senator Warren had made on the rumor had been when she explained two days earlier: “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” This sounds as if it was a debate about probability or weighing the odds, not about the legitimacy of a female president. But CNN clearly decided that the Warren campaign’s comprehensible but trivial ploy to reveal a secret summed up Sanders’ sincere and definitive viewpoint about women in politics.
Immediately after Sanders’ explanation, Phillip began by reading from her script, rather than reacting to the explanation Sanders had just given. She asked Warren: “What did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?” Warren began her answer cleverly with the phrase, “I disagreed,” which, as any lawyer will recognize, indicated that she accepted the factual basis of the question without committing herself to affirm it. She then added: “This question about whether or not a woman can be president has been raised and it’s time for us to attack it head on.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A speculative question that can be turned into a living controversy through the injection of unrelated substances and hot air, much like a loaf of bread that is raised by mixing inert dough with leavening and subjecting it to intense heat
Warren chose her words carefully when she said, “This question … has been raised” in response to Phillip’s question. Just as her statement, “I disagreed” avoided making a direct accusation by using the passive form of the verb, Warren avoided directly implicating Sanders, since the sentence literally means someone, somewhere has raised this question at some point in time. She cleverly left the impression that she validated the assumption contained in the moderator’s question.
Though the issue lacked any serious substance, this was clearly a tense moment, which, from CNN’s point of view, makes for exciting television. A day after the debate, the news broadcaster released the audio of the exchange that followed the debate in which Warren appeared to refuse to shake Sanders’ hand. The audio revealed that she accused Sanders of calling her a liar on national TV, presumably because he denied uttering the words quoted by Philip. Sanders responded, “You called me a liar,” though he may have recognized her talent for carefully avoiding a direct accusation.
CNN has been milking this story all week and has even managed to turn it into a kind of TV serial, with at least three successive episodes and possibly more to come. For an objective observer, it should stand as an illustration of everything honest journalism should not be, as well as a demonstration of how political rhetoric can work in the hands of a clever politician such as Warren. She stole the show with her set-piece that followed, about the superior performance of female candidates compared to men. Her handling of the controversy with Sanders demonstrated her ability to produce effective, cleverly disingenuous rhetoric. She was, after all, trained to be a lawyer before going into teaching and politics.
As many serious commentators have pointed out, CNN’s lines of questioning throughout the Democratic debate revealed a total insensitivity to political and even historical context. The questions were written to make all the candidates uncomfortable, some more than others. But a good journalist should know that the point of such challenging questions is to open a debate and to probe into motivations while revealing possible contradictions. Instead, CNN’s moderators simply followed a script and took no account of the varying points of view expressed on issues — such as foreign policy — that are complex and vital for the public to understand, especially in the current context.
In the case of the Warren/Sanders spat, rather than inquire as to what the tenor of the original conversation had been back in 2018, Phillip simply assumed the statement was true and asked Sanders to defend a position he credibly denies having. In the courtroom tradition of the US, this type of interrogation is equated with the famous question: “When did you stop beating your wife?”
CNN’s journalists were apparently instructed to suppress any journalistic curiosity they might have had about establishing what was actually said in the private conversation between Sanders and Warren. Phillip carefully avoided the opportunity to find out whether there may have been a misunderstanding. As Matt Taibbi on Rolling Stone points out concerning the question Phillip asked: “Not ‘did you say that,’ but ‘why did you say that?’”
A good journalist would have asked Sanders an even more probing question: What was that conversation all about in which you reportedly doubted the capacity of a woman to win the election? The simple word “reportedly” not only reminds the audience of the fact that the quote is hearsay. It also makes it possible to aim for clarity and at least approach the facts. But CNN apparently had a different agenda.
If the truth ever were to come out, a likely scenario for the conversation would have been a comparison between the two candidates of their weaknesses. Warren might have suggested that at 78 years old, age was his enemy. Sanders may have countered that a woman would be in a particularly vulnerable position facing President Donald Trump. If that were the case, Warren knew she had a trump card (no pun intended). Sanders could not bring up, in public, her point about his age because it would highlight his weakness. But, when needed, Warren could cite his remark about being a woman.
If Warren can succeed at that style of poker with Sanders, she might just be able to accomplish something similar with Trump. Electoral politics is all about exploiting any advantage you can find to win the game.
Matt Taibbi calls this a “CNN ambush” and cites another equally egregious one from a presidential debate in recent history, “when Bernard Shaw in 1988 crotch-kicked Mike Dukakis with a question about whether he’d favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife, Kitty.”
Taibbi makes the point that the truly controversial question here that emerges from this debate is not Sanders’ attitude toward women in politics, but rather the responsibility of the media, and CNN in particular, with regard to investigating and reporting real news. As he observes after citing many of the other clearly biased features of CNN’s handling of this week’s debate, the real winner may have been Donald Trump, who has repeatedly accused CNN of being “fake news.”
CNN put on a convincing display of its ability to present a hidden agenda as news and its taste for manipulating democratic processes. Taibbi sums up this sorry performance: “CNN bid farewell to what remained of its reputation as a nonpolitical actor via a remarkable stretch of factually dubious reporting, bent commentary, and heavy-handed messaging.”
The history of the relationship between politics and the media in the US over the past half-century has been one of continuous degradation. The news presented in the corporate media has increasingly become nothing more than a form of entertainment. Taibbi quotes a comment of Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chair and CNN commentator, preceding the debate: “This is a heavyweight match tonight. This is going to be frisky, it’s going to be competitive.”
This is the language of the world of professional sports, veering toward the hyperreal style of professional wrestling rather than that of honest athletic competitions. By turning public political discourse into, at best, a match of cleverly disingenuous practitioners of political rhetoric and, at worst, a pre-scripted TV serial, is it any wonder that the public has lost its last vestige of faith in US democracy and the media?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.