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CNN Tries to Outfox Fox With Tea Party Deal

CNN, the once dominant and comparatively respectable cable news network, seems determined to destroy whatever shreds are left of its credibility.

CNN, the once dominant and comparatively respectable cable news network, seems determined to destroy whatever shreds are left of its credibility. It announced this morning that it will be partnering with the Tea Party Express for a Republican primary debate in September of 2011.

Generally when a media organization chooses to co-host a primary campaign event it goes with the party apparatus or a non-partisan group like the League of Women Voters. Tea Party Express is hardly non-partisan. TPE is a political action committee that has actively engaged in campaigning on behalf of specific candidates. It supported Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska (all lost). It has also been a vocal proponent of Sarah Palin, who is a speculative candidate for president herself and thus a possible participant in the debate. It has taken positions for or against GOP candidates based on their adherence to Tea Party dogma and helped to defeat GOP incumbents. How can TPE be impartial in a Republican primary debate?

CNN’s statement announcing this partnership quoted Sam Feist, CNN political director and vice president of Washington-based programming, saying that…

“The Tea Party movement is a fascinating, diverse, grassroots force that already has drastically changed the country’s political landscape.”

“Undecided voters turn to CNN to educate themselves during election cycles, so it is a natural fit for CNN to provide a platform for the diverse perspectives within the Republican Party, including those of the Tea Party.”

That statement ought to outrage members of the Tea Party who insist they are not affiliated with any other party. It is a statement that reduces their views to being merely “perspectives within the Republican Party.” While TPE may not object to that characterization, I suspect that many other Tea Partiers would.

What’s more, the predominantly white organization cannot seriously be portrayed as diverse or as a “grassroots force.”It was created by Sal Russo and his Republican PR firm, Russo Marsh, and its brief history is fraught with scandal. Rival Tea Party groups were harshly critical of it for directing nearly half of the money it raised from citizen supporters to Russo’s firm. TPE's former spokesman, Mark Williams, was forced to resign after publishing a racially offensive article on his Web site. That was a particularly embarrassing episode as the Tea Party was battling persistent allegations of racism at the time.

On the day following CNN’s announcement Williams issued a press release praising CNN for its decision to embrace Tea Party Express. In the release he declared himself to have been vindicated and noted that the CNN relationship was evidence that charges of racism against the Tea Party were unfounded.

Williams: “That a respected international, serious news organization like CNN and even the potential presidential candidates recognize that the Tea Party is anything but racist simply thrills me.” [...] I feel completely vindicated, this is an absolute vindication of both the Tea Party and Mark Williams.”

This is precisely what makes CNN’s move so reprehensible. TPE is using this connection to whitewash its dubious reputation. CNN has to know that it is permitting itself to be used for the political benefit of an organization that doesn’t even have the respect of its Tea Party comrades. When Williams resigned last summer, TPE was booted from the National Tea Party Federation and has never been reinstated. So how is it representative of the so-called movement?

The Tea Party’s influence has long been overstated in the media. Poll after poll shows that it is an insignificant segment of the population and that its views are wildly out of touch with the American mainstream and even the Republican Party. But if CNN were still determined to partner with a Tea Party group it should at least endeavor to find one without the repugnant baggage of TPE (an admittedly difficult task).

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