How CNN Shapes Political Debate

Exclusive: CNN was happy to add a right-wing questioner for the Republican debate but won’t add a progressive for the Democratic debate, another sign of how the “mainstream media” shapes what’s acceptable in political discussion, a lesson that ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern has learned from personal experience.

By Ray McGovern

CNN, the sponsor of Tuesday’s debate among Democratic presidential candidates, has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid being sullied with the stigma of “liberal bias.” The four CNN journalists handpicked to do the questioning have carefully protected themselves from such a charge.

As Jeff Cohen noted Friday in “CNN’s Double Standards on Debates,” CNN made a point of including a bona fide right-winger in the Republican debate but “is not planning to include a single progressive advocate among its panel of four questioners … CNN presents as neutral: CNN’s [Dana] Bash and three CNN anchors (Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, and Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Espanol.)”

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer

The significance is that while a person from the Right or Left might break out of the usual frame of these debates, “mainstream” panelists can be counted on to ask predictable queries with maybe a “gotcha” question or two tossed in to show how “tough” the reporter can be. CNN’s line-up fits that description to a tee.

Dana Bash, who was also a panelist at last month’s debate among Republican candidates, has been a godsend to me as I hunted for examples to illustrate what has become of the so-called “mainstream media.” Speaking to college and other audiences, I often show this short but revealing video clip of Bash plying her “neutral” trade. 

Perhaps you will agree that, although less than a minute long, this clip is worth far more than a thousand words in making clear how CNN crackerjack reporters like Dana Bash and CNN senior statesman Wolf Blitzer apply their peculiar brand of “fair and balanced.”

What leaps out is how they, and their acutely attentive technical support, were prepared at a second’s notice to nip in the bud any favorable (or merely “neutral”) allusion to Iran, on the one hand, and any possibly negative reference to Israel, on the other.

In Iowa, reporting on the Republican caucus 3 1/2 years ago, Bash singled out Army Cpl. Jesse Thorsen for an interview. The young soldier sported on his neck a large tattoo of the Twin Towers with the words “9/11 Remember” making Thorsen seem an ideal candidate for the kind of “neutral” super-patriotic interview that Bash had in mind.

Although he supported libertarian Ron Paul, this young corporal on his way to his third deployment to Afghanistan looked like an easy mark for a fast-talking reporter whose “neutrality” was infused with Official Washington’s disdain for Paul’s anti-interventionist stance on foreign policy.

Pointing to the tattoo, Bash closed in for the kill, suggesting Ron Paul would endanger U.S. security if he pulled troops out of conflict areas like Afghanistan. Alas, Thorsen had not been briefed on the intended script, and the encounter did not work out the way Bash expected. The young soldier went off message into dangerous territory, mentioning or, rather, trying to mention Iran and Israel in ways that didn’t mesh with what all the Important People know to be true: Iran always bad, Israel always good.

Just in the nick of time, there was fortunate glitch cutting off the discordant message. Or as Blitzer explained, “we just lost our technical connection, unfortunately.”

Personal Experience

For good or ill, I have had some rather instructive personal experience with two of the other three panelists on CNN’s all-star team for Tuesday evening Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon. Those experiences might help potential viewers know what to expect as the Democrats go under their magnifying glasses.

Minutes after the impromptu four-minute Q & A debate I had with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on May 4, 2006 in Atlanta in which I challenged Rumsfeld about his false pre-war claims about Iraqi links to Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s possession of WMD I got a call on my cell phone from CNN star Anderson Cooper. He noted that I had been causing “quite a stir here in Atlanta,” adding that he wanted to interview me that evening.

“But first,” he said in an awkwardly halting way, “I need to ask you a question. “Er … weren’t you afraid?”

Not really, I replied. The experience was, rather, a real high. I went on to suggest that Cooper could experience the same high, were he to do a little homework and ask folks like Rumsfeld pointed questions quoting them back to themselves, whenever possible.

The Rumsfeld speech and Q &A that followed took place in the early afternoon of May 4, 2006, and was broadcast live. So, in a sense, it fit with the perfect storm for that night’s evening news. It was early enough to fit the evening TV “news” cycle; there was time to check facts; it was a live exchange of a citizen confronting a powerful official, something that is disturbingly rare in modern America; and it happened on a slow news day when there wasn’t some other story that dominated public attention.

As it turned out, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann exhibited none of the self-censoring inhibitions that seemed to worry Anderson Cooper earlier that day. Olbermann decided to feature the story that evening, as he put it, “with fact-check.” And for that and no doubt countless other violations of “mainstream media” etiquette Olbermann did not endear himself to his corporate TV brass. (Where is Olbermann now?)

The lesson here seems to be that, if you elect to give priority to having your comely face on the tube rather than speak truth to power, you forfeit the high that can come of being a serious journalist. You get to keep both your fame and your six- or seven-figure fortune for a Faustian bargain.

The issue at the Rumsfeld talk in Atlanta was no trifling matter. During the Q & A, it was easy to use his own past words together with his disingenuous responses to show that the Defense Secretary had lied through his teeth to help get the U.S. into what the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal called the “supreme international crime” a “war of aggression.”

Worth emphasizing, though, is the unfortunate reality that — malnourished as most Americans have become on accurate information from the media only those TV viewers who were offered an Olbermann-type fact-check would have gotten anything approaching the full story that evening. Otherwise, it would remain the proverbial whom-to-believe kind of puzzle: “Former CIA analyst said ‘Rumsfeld lied’ …. but Rumsfeld said, ‘I didn’t lie.’”

Last But Not Least

Then, we have Don Lemon. After the publication by WikiLeaks of thousands of official cables many of them highly embarrassing to the U.S. which Bradley/Chelsea Manning gave to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the Fawning Corporate Media eagerly joined an intense campaign by the Establishment to make Assange the bête noire of 2010, painting him the same deep black regularly used for the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Expert” after “expert” on CNN tore into Assange. It was such a one-sided spectacle, that someone must have suggested that CNN invite some dope who might try to defend Assange (ha, ha; good luck) and deny that he was what Vice President Joe Biden called him “a high-tech terrorist.” I was to be the victim.

CNN introduced Lemon’s five-minute interview of me with a very violent clip from Bonnie and Clyde and additional footage showing other terrorist miscreants at work. (In retrospect, I was glad that CNN barred me from seeing that introduction before my interview; seeing it might have strained my Irish temper beyond the breaking point.)

Don Lemon was loaded for bear, since one of the jobs of mainstream journalists is to prove their “objectivity” by getting tough with anyone who deviates from the conventional wisdom. You have to see it to believe it: You Say Julian Assange Is a Journalist? Wattayou Crazy?

After Lemon’s lemon of an interview, I seem to have ended up on CNN’s “no-fly” list for me, a small price to pay. I would prefer to be in the company of the gutsy Olbermanns of this world rather than the timorous Coopers.

Let me add here that, in my view, Anderson Cooper is by no means the worst of the bought-and-sold pundits. He is, however, perhaps the wealthiest, as heir to the Vanderbilt fortune. So, with all due respect, he would not face the prospect of life on the streets with hat in hand, were he to decide to go for the high of committing real journalism rather than acquiesce in the customary low of showing deference when interviewing powerful war criminals like Rumsfeld.

So as not to raise unrealistic expectations about Tuesday’s debate, Cooper has said that there will be no “gotcha” questions. “As a moderator, it’s not my job in this kind of debate to try and force anything,” he said. “I don’t go into this with some strategy for getting people going in one way or another. Even if I did have that strategy, or a strategy, I wouldn’t necessarily telegraph that.”

But one can expect a focus on many of the usual mainstream topics, framed in the typical mainstream way: What can be done to stop Putin? Why didn’t President Obama do more to achieve “regime change” in Syria? If the ongoing catastrophe in Libya is mentioned, it is likely to be in the narrow context of the Benghazi investigation and Hillary Clinton’s emails as Secretary of State.

It’s not likely that Clinton will be pressed on her disastrous history as a liberal war hawk: supporting the Iraq War, pushing for a pointless “surge” in Afghanistan, orchestrating a “regime change” war in Libya that has left the country ungovernable and opened the door to inroads by Islamic State terrorists. She is not likely to be asked whether she thinks “American exceptionalism” exempts U.S. officials from the constraints of international law.

The reason why she won’t be pressed on such questions is that CNN and the rest of the mainstream media accept the same premises that Clinton does. They frame the public debate with an implicit embrace of the U.S. right to invade countries and topple governments. The debate is only focused on whether the tactics worked, whether mistakes were made, not whether the decisions were wise or legal.

Other debate participants, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, also will be expected to squeeze their comments into the acceptable mainstream frame. That is why it would have been a good idea — or at least a novel one — to invite at least one out-of-the-box progressive to join the panel and possibly shatter the frame.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was a CIA analyst for more than 27 years after serving as an Army Infantry/Intelligence officer. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

13 comments for “How CNN Shapes Political Debate

  1. Greg
    October 13, 2015 at 15:36

    Sadly, Mr. McGovern is spot-on about our FCM. Even more sadly, most Americans don’t even seem aware of it. I long ago stopped watching/listening to/reading any mainstream US TV, radio, newspapers, or magazines. Not only because there is nary a word of truth anywhere in any of it, and because it is nothing more than nationalistic government propaganda regurgitated as “news,” but because it quite frankly makes me nauseous. I have a low tolerance for horse plop. Shame more people don’t, then “journalists” like Wolf Blitzer, Bash, et al. would be forced to go get jobs where they really belong – the Heritage Foundation, US Chamber of Commerce, AIPAC, etc.

  2. russ
    October 13, 2015 at 12:36

    Dana Bash aka Dana Ruth Schwartz is yet another unethical Israel First neocon Jew.


  3. Joe Tedesky
    October 12, 2015 at 01:52

    If the American media were on it’s game, well they missed the mark, when Lemon interviewed you Ray back in 2010. In that interview you made ‘breaking news’ when commenting about the pedophilia goings on in Afghanistan. Holy heck, back in 2010 I don’t even remember anyone talking about that kind of scandal. Yet, Lemon just rolled onward pass your pedophilia comment, like it was old news. Really??? News, like that could have been the high light of Lemon’s journalistic career, but he just moved on, like it was nothing.

    These laughable debates, are nothing less than TV sitcoms. Just look at the last debate, 30 million viewers. Oh, the commercial revenue probably has the network executives creaming in their jeans. I would not doubt, they wanted somehow to have the Donald make a cameo appearance. I wonder how many camera shots CNN will get of Bill Clinton (they do that with family members on Dancing with the Stars). My guess is Lincoln Chafee will be comedy relief. Chafee just has that look (sorry if I spelled his name wrong, I just don’t want to check the spelling). O’Malley and Webb will probably get about a total of eight minutes a piece, or as a real insult eight minutes combined. Now Bernie, I suspect will pledge to bring back the middle class, but probably fall short on foreign policy. Hillary, will mimic the best parts of the best of them, but being a Clinton it will all be one big fat lie. Pop off some pop corn, and enjoy the show, because that’s what this will be…a really big show!

    • Peter Loeb
      October 14, 2015 at 06:07


      Is there a “progressive” who will condemn Israel/Zionism for
      its colonial oppressions (too numerous to list)?

      Is there a “progressive” who will stand up an fight this Administration’s
      (or any other) war policies workdwide?

      Who, then, is “progressive”?

      Is a candidate who implicitly approves Zionism’s
      murders, home dispossessions, extermination policies. Is
      a candidate who OK’s massive funds to Israel “progressive”?

      I have found none to support.

      While I care about one candidate’s use of an email or
      another candidates racist and pejorative remarks about
      certain groups, none of these are my primary concerns.

      Death in Palestine is more important.Will this be discussed?

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  4. mikekrohde
    October 11, 2015 at 22:09

    I continue to marvel at the ability of a country of 7-8 million people to manipulate the allegedly free press of a super power to lie to the majority of its’ citizens. How do they do it? What law of the universe am I missing that permits this travesty to take place? A foreign country has allied itself with a radical minority in the south that shares their racial bias and have taken control of the country from the majority. Or am I overreacting? Please point out my error.

    • Gregory Kruse
      October 12, 2015 at 09:43

      I’d say you are right on.

  5. Abe
    October 11, 2015 at 22:06

    Don Lemon sings the song and knows when its time to “move on”

    • Ray McGovern
      October 11, 2015 at 23:34

      another highly revealing clip; thanks again, Abe

  6. Abe
    October 11, 2015 at 21:55
    • Ray McGovern
      October 11, 2015 at 23:33

      a very instructive clip; thanks, Abe

  7. Daniel
    October 11, 2015 at 19:59

    Don Lemon? Moderating a Presidential debate? Wolf Blitzer is bad enough, but Don Lemon? That fact alone proves how bizarre and untrustworthy the entirety of our so-called mainstream media has become.

  8. F. G. Sanford
    October 11, 2015 at 19:10

    Kudos to Joe Tedeskey for pointing out under the previous article a March 03, 2013 article by Medicines Sans Frontieres outlining their objections to the TPP. I assume that, despite Hillary’s new stance on trade agreements, she won’t be asked whether or not this article may constitute a motive for the recent tragedy.

  9. Mat
    October 11, 2015 at 18:48

    Good points, Mr McGovern. I would also add that the corporate media wants and embraces the label “liberal media” so as to control the message.

    Never having to employ a real progressive questioner leaves that role in their hands. After all, they’re the “liberal media” don’t you know.

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