Tonight's Republican debate might look familiar, with a well-known journalist posing questions to a stage full of candidates. But CNN's event is actually a co-production of sorts with the far-right Tea Party Express, raising serious questions about a journalistic outlet's decision to formally partner with a controversial political group.
As CNN explained the relationship (9/8/11):
CNN and the Tea Party Express, along with more than 100 local Tea Party groups from every state across the country, will team up Monday, September 12, to present a first-of-its-kind debate from the site of the 2012 Republican National Convention.
In addition to questions from [CNN's Wolf] Blitzer, audience members inside the debate hall, made up in part by members from Tea Party groups in 31 states and the District of Columbia, will be invited to ask questions directly to the candidates. Questions will also be taken live from Tea Party members at debate watch parties in Phoenix, Arizona; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Portsmouth, Virginia.
There were earlier indications that the event would be structured to cater to the Tea Party's ideological agenda. The Associated Press (6/14/11) reported that, according to CNN, "topics for the debate will be tailored for the interests of this political insurgent movement." When the partnership was announced, CNN political director Sam Feist (Daily Kos, 12/17/10) called the Tea Party movement "a fascinating, diverse grassroots force."
It's unusual for a centrist news outlet to take an openly partisan group as a partner in producing a political event; we can't recall progressive groups being granted any similar opportunities in recent years.
But the Tea Party Express has been criticized by actual grassroots conservative activists, who liken it to "a GOP-linked slush fund," as a Politico report (12/20/10) noted. The group is connected to a political action committee called Our Country Deserves Better, run by a California-based Republican strategist (New York Times, 9/19/10).
And there's much more. Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams made a number of bigoted statements before moving from chair to spokesperson in June 2010 -- including calling Barack Obama an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug and a racist-in-chief" (CNN, 11/14/09). Williams, unsurprisingly, was also a "birther" who doubted the legitimacy of Obama's birth certificate (Boston Globe, 4/22/10). And he was active in the campaign against efforts to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero, calling it a place to worship "the terrorists' monkey god" (Daily News, 5/19/10).
After Williams, apparently responding to NAACP criticism of Tea Party racism, posted a "satirical" letter from "We Colored People" to Abraham Lincoln (sample "joke": "How will we coloreds ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn?"), the Express was booted from the National Tea Party Federation, an umbrella group for the conservative protest movement, over its failure to repudiate its spokesperson (Think Progress, 7/19/10).
His successor has a similar record, as the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (1/25/11) points out:
Williams was replaced by TPE director of grassroots & coalitions Amy Kremer. But just like Williams, Kremer has a problem with racism. Like Williams, Kremer is a birther. Her blog, Southern Belle Politics, is filled with calumny for the president, including repetition of the (false) charge that he is not a natural-born American. She's also gone out of her way to defend a fellow Tea Partier after he sent out racist emails depicting President Obama as a witch doctor.
It is difficult to imagine why a serious news organization would want to have anything to do with such a group. But CNN has a history of paying them enormous attention, sending reporters out to follow a Tea Party Express bus tour (Crooks & Liars, 4/2/10) and even arranging to broadcast Michele Bachmann's Tea Party Express "response" to Obama's State of the Union address (1/25/11). CNN has also promoted its Tea Party coverage to conservative activists (Mediaite, 4/8/10), writing to Brent Bozell of the right-wing Media Research Center: "Clearly our critics from the left don't think we should be covering the Tea Party movement in the way we are and clearly CNN thinks it's a legitimate and important story."
Is there really a need for another national cable news channel devoted to promoting far-right elements within the Republican Party?
Ask CNN why it has decided to damage its credibility by partnering with the Tea Party Express for tonight's Republican debate.
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