Call It ‘Craven News Network’

CNN’s airing of Michele Bachmann’s alternative State of the Union was spineless, writes Eric Alterman.

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In this screen grab taken from video, Rep. Michele Bachmann, (R-MN),  delivers her response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union  address Tuesday, January 25, 2011. CNN aired the response. (AP)
In this screen grab taken from video, Rep. Michele Bachmann, (R-MN), delivers her response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, January 25, 2011. CNN aired the response. (AP)

It’s no simple matter to sum up all that’s wrong with the “thinking” that characterizes contemporary news coverage. But if I had to pick a potent symbol of just how rudderless are the allegedly “responsible” media executives making the decisions about who and what constitute “news” these days, I’d have to go with CNN’s decision to carry Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-MN) response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

Remember, Rep. Bachmann is just a mere member of the House of Representatives. She was actually rebuked by her own party when she ran for a leadership position in the current congressional class. She has no standing whatsoever to represent anything other than a majority of her Minnesota district to the rest of the nation. And yet CNN decides to treat her rant as an alternative State of the Union because the Tea Party—representing fewer than a fifth of the nation’s views according to most polls—anointed her as its spokesperson. To get a liberal equivalent of Rep. Bachmann, CNN would have had to turn over their cameras right afterward to Ward Churchill.

How do they justify it?

CNN Political Director Sam Feist defended the decision: “Based on our news judgment, we decided it was worthwhile to take it live. We did five hours of live coverage of the State of the Union address. Certainly this was part of the debate around the State of the Union.”

He added: "The Tea Party has become a major force in American politics and within the Republican Party. Hearing the Tea Party’s perspective on the State of the Union is something we believe CNN’s viewers will be interested in hearing and we are happy to include this perspective as one of many in tonight’s coverage."

Dave Weigel, notes The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, adds crucial context, observing that "CNN has a longstanding romance with the Tea Party Express," the political action committee that is promoting Rep. Bachmann’s speech. In fact, CNN and the Tea Party Express are co-sponsoring a GOP presidential debate later this year.

Now ask yourself: What is it about Rep. Bachmann that makes her views so compelling to CNN? Is it:

  • Her belief that “the very founders that wrote those documents [the U.S. Constitution] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States."
  • Because she called for Minnesotans to be "armed and dangerous" in response to President Barack Obama’s energy plans.
  • Because she looked at Glenn Beck’s rally, when the only independent estimate of the crowd size on the National Mall was 87,000, and declared: “We’re not going to let anyone get away with saying there were less than a million here today.”

One could go on…

I’ll admit I never thought to pay any attention to Rep. Bachmann until I was asked to write a piece about her in the spring of 2009. Doing some rather causal research, I discovered she had made the observation “that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter,” and “just think[s] it’s an interesting coincidence” that the new swine flu was taking place under Barack Obama. She was apparently either unaware or unconcerned that Gerald Ford was president during the previous outbreak of the virus—not that it would have explained anything at all if it had been Carter.

Ditto her analogies back then to what she called the "Hoot-Smalley Tariff," which she argued led Franklin Delano Roosevelt to turn the “recession into a depression.” Never mind, once again, that it was the Smoot-Hawley Act (not “the Hoot-Smalley Tariff”) that raised tariffs to historic levels and that it was signed by a Republican president over a year into the Great Depression.

The Minnesota bloggers Dylan and Ethan Ris of Politics Daily admitted back in 2009, "We’re seriously tempted to stop doing any work and simply replace our blog posts with an RSS feed of stories about Rep. Michele Bachmann.” They were thinking of Bachman’s complaints that we are "running out of rich people in this country"; that her fellow representatives have "a real aversion to capitalism”; and that following FDR and LBJ, Barack Obama represents “really the final leap to socialism.”

Not to put too fine a point on this but the woman is clearly insane. She knows or admits less about American history than any decently educated fourth grader and is aggressive rather than embarrassed about her ignorance. (“We’re not going to let anyone get away with saying the sky is blue.”)

So why is CNN promoting her as a legitimate alternative to the president of the United States? Is it because they really hate the Tea Party and conservatives generally and think by exposing the ignoramuses they chose as their representatives they will naturally discredit themselves? Possibly, but doubtful, since CNN is co-sponsoring a debate with the Tea Party and CNN debates usually double as cheerleading sessions.

Is it because they want to marginalize the president himself, by placing this far-right nincompoop in the limelight and thereby making the conservative Republican response by Paul Ryan appear as the reasonable “center?” Fox News has that job, but the possibility can’t be eliminated.

Or is it because they think Tea Party types watch a lot of cable—witness the success of Fox News—and they couldn’t care less what they put on the air as long as those folks are willing to watch it?

I’m going with C.

Call it “Craven News Network.”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

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