Matt Taibbi, writing from the left for Rolling Stone, calls CNN’s debate performance on Tuesday “villainous and shameful.” Taibbi is referring to CNN’s handling of the “he said, she said” dispute between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And he is absolutely right to characterize CNN’s performance as he does.
First, CNN’s Abby Phillip assumed the truth of Warren’s claim that Sanders said a woman couldn’t defeat President Trump. Despite Sanders’s past denials, Phillip asked, “why did you say that?” She might just as well have asked when Sanders stopped beating his wife.
Sanders responded with another denial plus a lengthy explanation of why it was implausible to think he said what Warren alleges. Whereupon Phillip turned to Warren and asked, “what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”
Taibbi also discusses CNN’s coverage of the Sanders-Warren dispute both before and after the debate. Some of CNN’s talking heads displayed a pro-Warren bias almost as egregious as Phillip’s.
At one point in the post-debate coverage, someone called Jess McIntosh claimed that the dispute wasn’t “he said, she said” because “this is a reported-out story that CNN was part of breaking.” To his credit, Anderson Cooper told McIntosh that this is precisely a “he said, she said” dispute. It was a rare moment of integrity on a night when CNN thoroughly disgraced itself.
Taibbi’s only false note is when he compares Phillip’s question to Bernard Shaw asking Mike Dukakis in 1988 whether he’d favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife. The questions are nothing alike. Shaw’s question pressed Dukakis about a policy position through an extreme hypothetical. Phillip shamelessly took the side of one candidate over another in a dispute about facts.
The valid comparison is between Phillip and Candy Crowley. During a presidential debate in 2012, she incorrectly took Barack Obama’s side in a dispute with Mitt Romney about Benghazi-related facts. At the time, she worked for CNN.
Taibbi gets back on track in his concluding paragraphs:
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.