CNN’s Tea Party partnership: ‘odd’ at best, ‘unethical’ at worst

Handicapping how presidential candidates perform in debates is a tricky proposition. But in this case, the pundits agree: The co-hosts of Monday night's Republican debate--CNN and the Tea Party Express--made for "one of the oddest political matches in recent memory," "strange political bedfellows" not unlike "James Carville and Mary Matalin."

"After the 2010 elections, it was undeniable that the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party was a force, and that it was likely to help determine the outcome of the nomination," Sam Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief, told the New York Times. "We decided that it makes sense for one of the debates to have a Tea Party connection, and that we were the right network to do it."

That decision put CNN on shaky ethical ground, author Scott Martelle argued:

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.

That a cable news network "derided by conservatives as a mouthpiece of the political left" and the activist Tea Party would band together was "an unusual display of cooperation between the news media and some of its most hostile critics," the Times wrote.

Unusual in theory, and tricky, to put things mildly, in execution.

"The idea of a cable news network so reviled by the far political right coming together with its fiercest critics to host anything is completely ludicrous," Grace Wyler wrote on Business Insider. "Instead of remaking itself into a network of noble, cooperative centrists, CNN just looked like a sell-out, pandering to Tea Partiers and Tea Party haters in one fell swoop."

One problem was that Wolf Blitzer, the debate's moderator, never called out any of legions of false statements from either candidates or questioners.

"Blitzer ... totally lost control of the conversation by the end of the first segment, apparently thrown off by the rowdy crowd," Wyler wrote. "Plus, he kept having to rephrase audience-submitted queries like 'How will you get rid of illegals?' into something resembling actual policy questions."

Another excess that critics have called out was CNN's attempt to incorporate sports production values.

"Sweeping, swooshing graphics; audience cheers right out of ESPN's NFL draft coverage," Jeff Greenfield, former political analyst at CBS, ABC and CNN, wrote on Politico. "Bringing the candidates out one at a time, letting them introduce themselves the way NBC has the offenses and defenses do with quick taped intros. It was nearly 15 minutes before the first question was asked.

"It was a worthy effort from my old employer--the inventor of the magic wall and the holographic interview," Greenfield added. "But it wasn't enough. Anyone switching to 'Monday Night Football' could see in a few seconds that debate coverage has a long way to go before bringing genuinely eye-catching coverage to the presidential debate format."

"I get what CNN is doing," NBC political analyst Chuck Todd wrote on Twitter. "90 minute debate filling a 2-hour window ... find the excess where you can."

It also didn't help that CNN's Tea Party debate was scheduled less than a week after NBC's.

"Two debates in four days are almost as exhausting for political junkies at home as they are for the candidates," Walter Shapiro wrote in the New Republic.

UPDATE: A Cutline reader points out that in 2008, CNN did, in fact, co-host a Democratic primary debate with a progressive group--the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute, in South Carolina.