When Did CNN Become a Shill for GOP Extremism and the Tea Party?

CNN, once known for its unflinching coverage of actual news events, last night decided to become a maker, not a chronicler, of news. When the cable news network decided to partner with the Tea Party Express for a debate among the Republican presidential candidates, it cast aside any ethical concerns a news organization might have about direct involvement in elections and active engagement in altering the dynamics of a political party.

You could say there was a bit of a payoff, after a fashion, for the American people in the bargain, though: an unvarnished look at who the rank-and-file of the Tea Party really are, and what they believe. The audience in Tampa was said to comprise members of 150 Tea Party groups from across the nation. True to form, they applauded at the notion of an uninsured person in a coma being left to die (as suggested by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas), and booed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for saying that undocumented citizens who were brought to this country as children, through no fault of their own, should be allowed to pursue a higher education here. And CNN surely could have put together an audience of Tea Partiers without partnering with an organization that makes direct payments to the campaign coffers of right-wing candidates.

If the Tea Party Express was nothing more than a political constituency of the Republican Party, that would be bad enough. But it's not: it's a political action committee, directly involved in electioneering, and the CNN event promises to aid the fundraising efforts of the Tea Party Express PAC. CNN's co-sponsorship of the Tea Party Express debate amounts to an incalculable in-kind contribution to a far-right political PAC, elevating its brand name, providing free air time and event-staging, and conferring an aura of legitimacy on an organization that is essentially a fundraising operation for anti-government candidates. If this isn't illegal, it's time to scream from the rafters, why not?

In the 2010 midterm elections, Tea Party Express raised a total of $7.7 million, which it spent on the U.S. Senate campaigns of Christine ("I'm not a witch") O'Donnell, Del.; Sharron Angle, Nev.; Joe Miller, Alaska; and Marco Rubio, Fla., among others. In fact, Tea Party Express donated the maximum allowable amount to the congressional campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann, something that none of the other contenders at last night's debate can claim.

Of the millions raised by Tea Party Express in the last election cycle, much of the money was spent in "independent expenditures" (usually attack ads and mailings) designed to support the candidacies of primary challengers such as O'Donnell, Angle and Miller. According to OpenSecrets.org, Tea Party Express was in the top 20 PACs ranked according to independent expenditures. So, in its partnership with Tea Party Express, CNN is essentially (however inadvertently) deploying Wolf Blitzer, who moderated last night's debate, to alter the political dynamic of the Republican Party to move it even further to the right than it already is,

The partnership with Tea Party Express seems an act of desperation by CNN, eager to reclaim some of the audience it has lost to Fox News Channel, which has been a relentless promoter of the Tea Party Express bus tour. Over the course of the last year, CNN also added to its roster of paid analysts Erick Erickson, proprietor of the blog Red State, and the factually challenged Dana Loesch of Andrew Breitbart's Big Journalism Web site. The cable channel has not, however, added analysts from the progressive movement, leaving the left to be represented by more establishment liberals, such as Donna Brazile and Jeffrey Toobin. (Great people, excellent analysts, but not exactly in the same place politically as, say, Van Jones and Amy Goodman.) So, CNN actively creates more opportunity for right-wing activists to push the GOP further to the right, while depriving progressives the opportunity to persuade Democrats to move in their direction.

In the videos CNN produced to promote the debate, Washington bureau chief Sam Feist [video] and moderator Wolf Blitzer never mention the name "Tea Party Express." Rather, they say, they are partnering with "the Tea Party." But there are more than a few Tea Partiers who want nothing to do with Tea Party Express. Last year, TPE was expelled from the National Tea Party Federation for a racist screed by then-spokesperson Mark Williams, who, according to Media Matters, penned "a fake letter from the NAACP calling Abraham Lincoln the 'greatest racist ever' for taking away the 'great gig' of slavery from African-Americans."

Last week, FreedomWorks, the Tea Party-allied group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, withdrew its support from the Tea Party Express bus tour because of TPE's inclusion of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at a speaking event.

Tea Party Express was initially founded during the 2008 election campaign as an anti-Obama PAC called Our Country Deserves Better PAC. Once the Tea Party movement took off, PAC founders Sal Russo and Howard Kaloogian rebranded the PAC under the Tea Party Express name. Russo is a long-time Republican political operative; Kaloogian ran the Recall Grey Davis campaign that unseated the sitting California governor and paved the way for the victory of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not exactly your quaint grassroots types.

There's precedence, alas, for political meddling by cable news entities through debate partnerships with constituency groups, but never before with a PAC. In 2004 and 2008, Fox News Channel partnered with the Congressional Black Caucus Institute for a Democratic candidates' forum, and CNN itself co-hosted a forum with the faux-progressive preacher Jim Wallis in 2007 in which the candidates bowed and scraped to prove their religiosity before a sanctimonious crowd. But neither of those groups is a political action committee. (The Congressional Black Caucus Institute is a separate organization from the Congressional Black Caucus, does operate a small PAC, but also has a much broader mission.)

Each time a news organization partners with a constituency group in a presidential debate, it accords that group a greater impact than competing constituencies -- and that's troubling enough. But when a news organization partners with a group that gives money directly to candidates and that makes attack ads against candidates it doesn't fancy, that news organization has crossed the line into electioneering. And that's just plain wrong.

If you watched the debate via the livestreamed Webcast, as I did, you saw a bit of unintentional video after the debate had ended, when Wolf Blitzer approached Rick Perry, saying he hoped they could "get together soon." Then Blitzer patted Perry on the shoulder. "You did an excellent job tonight," he said.

This piece has been updated for clarity.

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