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CNN’s Debate Performance Was Villainous and Shameful

The 24-hour network combines a naked political hit with a cynical ploy for ratings

CNN journalist Wolf Blitzer arrives on stage to moderate the seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register at the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa on January 14, 2020. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

CNN journalist Wolf Blitzer arrives onstage to moderate the seventh Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season, co-hosted by CNN and the 'Des Moines Register' at Drake University, on January 14th, 2020.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

CNN debate moderator Abby Phillip asked Bernie Sanders in the Tuesday debate in Des Moines:

“CNN reported yesterday — and Senator Sanders, Senator Warren confirmed in a statement — that, in 2018, you told her you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?”

Not “did you say that,” but “why did you say that?”

Sanders denied it, then listed the many reasons the story makes no sense: He urged Warren herself to run in 2016, campaigned for a female candidate who won the popular vote by 3 million votes, and has been saying the opposite in public for decades. “There’s a video of me 30 years ago talking about how a woman could become president of the United States,” he said.

Phillip asked him to clarify: He never said it? “That is correct,” Sanders said. Phillip turned to Warren and deadpanned: “Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”

That “when” was as transparent a media “fuck you” as we’ve seen in a presidential debate. It evoked memories of another infamous CNN ambush, 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.

This time, the whole network tossed the mud. Over a 24-hour period before, during, and after the debate, 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.

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The cycle began with a “bombshell” exposé by CNN reporter MJ Lee. Released on the eve of the debate, Lee reported Warren’s claim that Sanders told her a woman couldn’t win in a December 2018 meeting.

Lee treated the story as fact, using constructions such as, “Sanders responded that he did not think a woman could win,” and “the revelation that Sanders expressed skepticism that Warren could win.”

Lee said “the conversation” opened a window into “the role of sexism and gender inequality in politics”: The conversation also illustrates the skepticism among not only American voters but also senior Democratic officials that the country is ready to elect a woman as president …

Although Lee said she based the story on “the accounts of four people,” they were “two people Warren spoke with directly soon after the encounter,” and “two people familiar with the meeting.” There were only two people in the room, Sanders and Warren. Lee’s “four people” actually relied on just one source, Warren.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same construction that’s driven countless other shaky stories in the past, from WMD reports to Russiagate speculations. An unconfirmable hearsay story is conveyed by one source, who gives the reporter the numbers of two or three other people in the office who’ve heard the same tale from the same place. Voilà: A one-source pony is now factual “according to several people familiar with the matter.”

CNN hyped the “feud” between Sanders and Warren the whole day before the debate. “This is a heavyweight match tonight. This is going to be frisky, it’s going to be competitive,” former DNC chair and commentator Terry McAuliffe said. This was the ratings-humping aspect of this gross episode.

On The Lead With Jake Tapper — where the anchor was forced to play devil’s advocate and bring up the “did it even happen?” question — there was scoffing about the senator’s denials. Here’s an exchange between Tapper and Hilary Rosen, a longtime Democratic strategist:

Jake Tapper: Hilary, let me start with you. The explanation that we heard from the Sanders campaign last night was basically, ‘Look, they got their wires crossed.’… What Senator Sanders was trying to say was Trump will exploit misogyny and sexism and make it difficult for a woman to win.
Hilary Rosen:
Yes.
Jake Tapper:
He wasn’t saying he doesn’t believe a woman will win.
Hilary Rosen:
What they were saying is the little lady misunderstood. [Laughter]

The debate preview show hosted by Anderson Cooper and featuring the likes of McAuliffe, former Clinton comms person Jess McIntosh, and former senior adviser to Barack Obama David Axelrod, was full of hand-wringing about how the Democratic Party is moving too far to the left. Panelists worried aloud about how more “moderate” candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar (the recipient of obsessive attention within media circles despite a comically consistent absence of real-people support) might get traction through the debate.

A consistent question was whether Warren would “engage” Sanders on the “women can’t win” story, or whether someone else like Klobuchar might:

Gloria Borger: In the fight between, you know, between Warren and Sanders over gender and whether he told her that a woman couldn’t win, I don’t think they’re going to engage on that tonight. That took place —
Anderson Cooper:
Governor McAuliffe was out here earlier saying that he thinks they may not engage on it, but that Senator Klobuchar …
David Axelrod:
Yes, I think that’s right. I think that’s right.

Sanders wasn’t always mentioned by name in exchanges about the party’s unfortunate extremist drift, but we know who Axelrod was talking about when he suggested that Klobuchar or Buttigieg might say, “We can talk about Medicare for All. But here on planet Earth …”

Of course, there were times when Sanders was mentioned, like when Dana Bash offered this gibberishy mouthful about the “commander-in-chief test”:

Do [voters] want a Bernie Sanders anti-interventionist, or do they want somebody who has experience and who has — as I’m sure you will hear behind us — voted for things like the Iraq war and maybe has made other decisions that he doesn’t regret and has been a leader on national security, but also has some that he does?

CNN factory-produces these banal meanderings, worrying over the chances of establishment candidates and how they might overcome the irrational urges of the electorate (“It’s head or heart,” as Bash put it). It’s elite messaging in numbing quantity, to the point where you feel like screaming, “We get it!”

This continued during the debate, with the chryon featuring questions like, “How will [Sanders] avoid bankrupting the country?” Or: “Does Sanders owe voters an explanation of how much his health plan will cost them and the country?”

After Phillip pulled the “When Sanders said that horrible thing we can’t prove happened, how did you feel?” trick with Warren, she moved to Klobuchar, who by coincidence was the person panelists predicted might “go for the jugular” over this story: “Senator Klobuchar,” Phillip said, “What do you say to people who say a woman can’t win the election?” Again, the sleazy construction of the question presupposed that someone actually did say it.

I wondered online how long it would take for someone after the debate to declare Klobuchar the winner. It turned out to be the very first comment on Anderson Cooper’s wrap-up show, from Gloria Borger: “Well, I think that Amy Klobuchar tried her hardest to distinguish herself as a pragmatist who can tell the rest of the Democrats to get real.”

Then McIntosh said this: I think what Bernie forgot was that this isn’t a he said/she said story. This is a reported-out story that CNN was part of breaking. So, to have him just flat-out say no, I think wasn’t — wasn’t nearly enough to address that for the women watching.

Poor Anderson Cooper was forced to intercede and point out that it literally is a he said/she said story (and not remotely “reported out,” I might add). Soon after, Bash said it was an “out-of-the-park moment” for Warren, adding that the story was a litmus test for gender solidarity:

And so she is trying to use that moment and explain why, not just a woman, but her as the woman in that position, should be really seriously considered. And it was a clever way of doing it because she also brought in the other woman on the stage, almost — a sister in solidarity. 

Rounding out the cycle of completely predictable messaging, Van Jones said, “There was a banana peel sent out there for Bernie to step on when he came with his comments about women. I think Bernie stepped on it and slid around.” He concluded, “[Warren] knocked that moment out of the park.”

After the debate, Trump fans online were in full schadenfreude mode, crowing about how “the left” finally understood that CNN really is fake news. Overall, #CNNisgarbage trended and #fuckCNN wasn’t far behind.

If the network doesn’t see trouble in this, it’s delusional. Voters on both sides of the aisle have changed since the Bernard Shaw days. They pay more attention to media manipulations, and it doesn’t get much more manipulative than punching above the facts to advance transparent political narratives, which is a new and accepted habit in the commercial news landscape.

We’ll find out in Iowa and New Hampshire what Democratic Party voters believe about that Warren-Sanders meeting, but that grimy story pales in comparison to the bigger picture: Episodes like this are why people hate the media.

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