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The CNN/Tea Party Debate and Other Deadly 'Liberal Media' Crushes on Conservatives | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

The CNN/Tea Party Debate and Other Deadly 'Liberal Media' Crushes on Conservatives

CNN looked pathetic enough co-hosting Monday’s Republican debate with the Tea Party Express (a group whose former spokesman faked an NAACP letter calling Abraham Lincoln the “greatest racist ever” for taking away the “great gig” of slavery from African-Americans). But CNN went on to truly humiliate itself by dressing for the event in Tea Party drag.

Waving the American flag on a giant video screen, having a singer belt out the National Anthem, bringing the candidates on stage one-by-one like Super Bowl stars—the surreal spectacle was the culmination of years of mainstream media magnifying the Tea Party’s power and then begging, “Please don’t hit me with that oversized bludgeon I gave you!”

Ever desperate to prove how “centrist” it is, CNN dreads the GOP and Fox News attacking it as “the liberal media.” The formerly dubbed “Clinton News Network” has long felt the sting of right-wing slings and arrows. At a 2009 Capitol Hill demo, “protesters shouted ‘Tell the Truth!’ at the correspondent Lisa Desjardins before breaking into a chant for Glenn Beck,” the Times recounts—and CNN has been doing the Stockholm Syndrome Swoon ever since.

We’ve seen this kind of media appeasement before. In fact, the scariest example this week wasn’t Wolf Blitzer presiding over the far right’s red-white-and-blue fantasies. It was Bill Keller, the New York Times’s recently resigned executive editor, offering a non-apology apology for his very influential support for the Iraq war. Cut through the intellectualized excuses and it comes down to ego and fear: he and other “liberal hawks,” he writes, were “a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys.”

Defying the caricature of liberals. The fear of being tarred as effete, elite and emasculated has driven far too much of our post-Reagan history, for journalists and politicians alike. And so even as the CNN debate swathed the Tea Party in mainstream cred (as the Times did Bush’s neocon war), the payoffs went both ways. As Jon Stewart said of the debate, “a fringe, often-derided incompetent bunch of yahoos was finally granted legitimacy by pairing with the Tea Party.”

Of course, CNN says it’s just covering the news, not its flank. “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,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “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.” Wait—doesn’t Fox News already have that TP connection 24/7?

CNN is hardly alone in mythologizing the Tea Party into Wizard of Oz proportions (and, of course, some CNNers, like Anderson Cooper, do a great job in “keeping them honest”). While most of the MSM gave the raging anti-Obama town halls in the summer of 2009 the celebrity treatment, those same outlets only casually glanced at this summer’s town halls, the ones in which citizens aggressively called out Republican lawmakers on jobs and the economy. (So frightened at facing constituents, some GOPers started charging poll-tax-like admission fees.)

But CNN’s media crush on the Tea Party is the most blatant because it’s so complete and unabashed. Since the movement’s rise, CNN has hired RedState.com’s Erick Erickson and St. Louis Tea Party activist Dana Loesch as paid contributors, without adding “analysts from the progressive movement,” as Alternet’s Adele Stan points out. And during July’s debt ceiling protests at the Capitol, CNN.com reported on a measly Tea Party Express rally—many of the fifty attendees were from the media—but never mentioned the 450-person strong MoveOn/American Dream demo the next day. Politico did the same. But CNN.com went on to make excuses for the TPE, its debate co-sponsor, by writing, “Don’t be fooled by the tiny turnout at the Tea Party rally.… The conservative movement doesn’t much need rallies anymore. November 2010 changed all of that.”

If the cons don’t need rallies anymore, it may be because Fox and now CNN are staging the productions for them.

But when the self-fulfilling prophecies don’t pan out—the Tea Party–induced “debt crisis” and subsequent downgrade of America’s credit rating, for example, have pushed Tea Party approval ratings to all-time lows—the corporate media are loathe to withdraw their investment, psychopolitical as well as financial.

For the record, the number of viewers for last week’s MSNBC Republican debate, 5.4 million, toppled the 3.6 million for CNN’s. However, no data was available for how many viewers tuned out during the national anthem.

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