CNN gives Bush administration a "big wet kiss"
Just over two months ago, CNN proudly patted itself on the back for debunking a smear campaign that alleged that Barack Obama spent four years in a madrassa. On January 22, Situation Room host Wolf Blitzer boasted:
BLITZER: [A]s allegations swirl about Senator Barack Obama's education abroad, it's 5 a.m. in Indonesia, where we actually went to check out the facts, as a serious news organization should do, to debunk the rumors. We have a CNN exclusive that you will want to see, this hour.
CNN's decision to actually research and report the facts rather than mindlessly repeating right-wing talking points was, indeed, exactly what "a serious news organization should do."
Unfortunately, the past week suggests CNN was simply play-acting rather than rededicating itself to serious journalism. The cable channel's coverage of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to the Middle East suggests that, rather than checking the facts, CNN is dedicating itself to the tireless pursuit of a rather narrow demographic: those who think that Fox News would be great, if only it were a more reliable source of Republican talking points.
To be sure, CNN hasn't been alone in misinforming viewers about Pelosi's trip. Media Matters and numerous others -- Greg Sargent, Crooks and Liars, Atrios (Media Matters Senior Fellow Duncan Black), Glenn Greenwald, FireDogLake, Steve Benen, and Think Progress noteworthy among them -- have detailed many of the media's most egregious failings in covering Pelosi's visit to the Middle East.
Among the most significant:
- News organizations routinely reported the Bush administration's attacks on Pelosi without noting that Republican members of Congress have also made the trip to Syria in recent days.
- While endlessly repeating the dog-bites-man story of Republicans criticizing the Democratic speaker of the House, media virtually ignored a man-bites-dog-story: Republican Congressman Darrell Issa's criticism of President Bush. Issa, who met with Syrian President Assad in Damascus on April 5, responded to Bush's criticism by saying "President Bush, is the head of state, but he hasn't encouraged dialogue. That's an important message to realize: we have tensions, but we have two functioning embassies." Likewise, media paid little attention to comments by Republican Congressman Joe Pitts, who also went to Syria. After returning from Syria, Pitts said, "Dialogue is not a sign of weakness. ... It's a sign of strength." Or to Republican Congressman Frank Wolf's defense of his trip to Syria: "I don't care what the administration says on this. You gotta do what you think is in the best interest of your country."
- The media blasted Pelosi for "violat[ing] a long-held understanding that the United States should speak with one official voice abroad" without noting that, according to Republican Congressman David Hobson, who accompanied her on the trip, Pelosi did no such thing. Nor did many news outlets note the fact that when he was speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert urged Colombian military officials to circumvent the Clinton administration and work directly with the Republican Congress. In other words: The media criticized Pelosi for something that even a Republican member of Congress says she did not do, while ignoring the fact that Hastert did do it.
But while many news organizations were guilty of spreading misinformation about Pelosi's trip, CNN may have been the worst offender. Over the past week, the cable channel has run scores of segments about the trip, with more coming each day -- more than 30,000 words worth through Thursday, by our count.
During those segments, CNN anchors and reporters have routinely trashed Pelosi -- and they have done so speaking for themselves, not merely by quoting Bush administration critics.
Most incredibly, CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux (who guest-hosted CNN's The Situation Room this week in place of Wolf Blitzer) asked the Syrian ambassador, "Why should the Americans, or even the international community, see this any more as a political stunt here, a publicity stunt, a big wet kiss to President al-Assad?"
It's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine Malveaux ever making such a statement about a meeting between President Bush and a foreign leader.
But that wasn't the only overheated rhetoric CNN reporters used to describe Pelosi's trip. At least three different CNN reporters and hosts invoked the Girls Gone Wild videos to describe the behavior of the first woman to serve as speaker of the House. And, believe it or not, Glenn Beck was the last to do so, not the first:
- TOM FOREMAN: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Girls Gone Wild, D.C. style. She's making a Middle East swing and chatting with Syria. (3/30)
- WOLF BLITZER: Congress heads out on spring break, and to hear the White House tell it, you'd think that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had gone wild. (3/30)
- GLENN BECK: Nancy Pelosi is spending her spring break in Syria. It's Congress gone wild. (4/2)
These were only the most overt of dozens of dismissive, marginalizing comments by CNN anchors and reporters, who routinely described Pelosi as "defying" President Bush -- a construct that, as Media Matters has explained, suggests that Congress is subservient to the Bush administration, rather than being a co-equal branch of government.
Similarly, Malveaux has spent much of the past week declaring that Pelosi "is not traveling in any official capacity" and has no "standing" and suggesting she is "overstepping her role" and that her trip is merely a "stunt."
Paula Zahn was even more direct, asking: "Is the speaker of the House aiding terrorists by taking the road to Damascus?"
But the real problem with CNN's coverage of Pelosi's trip wasn't the arguably sexist language the channel occasionally used to describe the speaker of the House.
The real problem is how relentlessly CNN covered what should have been a non-story -- and how, with very few exceptions, its reporters completely adopted the Bush administration's point of view.
Nearly all of the scores of segments CNN devoted to Pelosi's trip were largely about Pelosi being criticized for going to Syria -- about her "controversial" trip that "critics call a bungled effort at diplomacy," her attempt at a "stunt" and "political theater" that was the subject of "stinging White House criticism" ... and on and on and on.
Malveaux was perhaps the most enthusiastic purveyor of White House talking points, in ways small and large. One of the most common: Malveaux repeatedly introduced segments and framed discussions by asking "questions" like, "Is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi engaging in dangerous diplomacy?"
On some occasions, she offered a more balanced construct, wondering if the trip was "[a] smart political move or dangerous diplomacy?" But she never, as far as we can tell, offered only the positive construct -- she never framed a segment or discussion by asking only if the trip was a good thing. She often used the negative (and Republican-favored) phrasing by itself -- but never the positive phrasing.
And while CNN told viewers dozens and dozens of times about White House criticism of Pelosi's trip, the Republicans who traveled to Syria were rarely mentioned. And when they were mentioned, it was typically in passing, at the end of a report, without making clear the Bush administration's inconsistency in attacking a Democrat for something Republicans were doing as well. One notable exception came on the April 3 broadcast of Paula Zahn Now:
PAULA ZAHN: Ed, we also can't ignore the fact that a Republican delegation was also in Syria over the weekend. We didn't hear the president single them out for criticism.
ED HENRY: You're absolutely right. The White House did not mention the Republicans in the Rose Garden today. The White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, has said in the last couple days that there's a blanket policy against Democrats or Republicans going to Syria.
But you're absolutely right. There is one Republican member of Speaker Pelosi's delegation along for that trip. And, this past weekend, there was a delegation of about three or four Republican lawmakers that met with President Assad.
So, the bottom line is, there seems to be a bit of a double standard, when you look at the fact that it's not just Democrats going. There are Republicans going and meeting with President Assad as well -- Paula.
That's an exchange that was all too rare -- a CNN anchor and reporter making clear that the White House had been guilty of a double standard in criticizing Pelosi. But that brief oasis of responsibility only makes CNN's failings more pronounced. If they knew the White House was using a double standard, why did they give the attacks on Pelosi such nonstop, and typically uncritical, coverage? Why wasn't that inconsistency the focus of CNN's reporting? Why did Zahn introduce that very show by suggesting Nancy Pelosi was aiding terrorists?
More typical of those segments that did mention Republican travel to Syria was an April 3 Situation Room discussion between Malveaux and CNN correspondent Brent Sadler. Malveaux kicked things off by describing Pelosi as "flying in the face of the White House, which accuses her of sending mixed signals" and describing her meeting with Assad as "very controversial." Roughly 200 words later, after Sadler had paraphrased Bush's "strong rebuke" of Pelosi, Malveaux ended the discussion by noting that "Pelosi is heading a bipartisan House delegation that includes Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, and one Republican, David Hobson, of Ohio."
Yes, if you were listening closely, at the very end, you learned that a Republican member of Congress accompanied Pelosi on the trip.
That same day, Malveaux interviewed White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino on The Situation Room.
Malveaux didn't bother to ask Perino why the White House was attacking Pelosi for something Republicans were also doing.
And CNN's constant repetition of White House frames and talking points about Pelosi's trip is still going strong, making any attempt at comprehensively cataloging their journalistic failures futile. Just this morning, Miles O'Brien and Kiran Chetry (CNN's newest anchor, fresh from Fox News) made the following statements:
- "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi enters the world stage and stumbles. Should she have stayed closer to home?"
- "Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is back home this morning after what some are calling a disastrous trip to the Middle East, specifically Damascus, Syria."
- "[T]he meeting with the Syrian president has sent the speaker down a rocky path of condemnation."
- "So, bad behavior, foolish. Was it a bad idea to take the trip in the first place or was it the way she conducted herself during the trip?" [CNN special correspondent Frank Sesno replied that "[i]t may have been both."]
- "The Washington Post yesterday, normally a friend of Speaker Pelosi said this: 'Ms. Pelosi's attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive, it's foolish.' "
That last one was Miles O'Brien, thoroughly embracing the right-wing talking points, all the way down to the spurious suggestion that The Washington Post editorial board is friendly to Democrats.
Media Matters' full coverage of the coverage of Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria can be found here.
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