Jay Rosen has had it up to here with CNN moderators asking front-running Democratic Party primary candidates to explain their signature policy positions. “The ‘make Elizabeth Warren say she would raise taxes on the middle class’ question should be a credibility killer. For the journalists who keep asking it,” Rosen tweeted.
Not long ago, any person arguing that reporters should shun politically inconvenient questions of their favored candidates would be struggling to maintain credibility. Rosen, though, is a professor of journalism—it says “I teach journalism” right there on his Twitter bio.
The gist of Rosen’s case—always wrapped in a patina of academic earnestness —is that mainstream political media skews coverage towards the framing Republican desire. And so the professor busies himself browbeating outlets into adopting more ideological constructive coverage and rhetoric—use “climate emergency” or “climate crisis” to be used instead of “climate change;” that sort of Orwellian thing.
For example, on the Warren question, Rosen embraces Margaret Sullivan’s formulation: “Of course, it’s legitimate to dig into the costs [of ‘Medicare for All’], but not in a way that creates a nice GOP campaign ad, and misses the larger lens of overall costs. (Warren, notably, refused to take the bait.)”
If Warren’s answer to a straightforward question regarding her signature policy initiative happens to make “a nice GOP campaign ad” it’s only because some aspect of the policy is unpopular. If journalists concerned themselves with how partisans repurpose legitimate queries, they’d never be able to ask a difficult question.
Maybe that’s the point. Because even if no one can make Warren say she would raise taxes on the middle class—the senator refuses to take the “bait,” after all—if she gets her way, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. ‘Medicare for All’ means the elimination of every health-care insurance plan in the country, and then a giant tax hike to fund the $34-trillion government-mandated plan. Rosen and Sullivan, the former public editor The New York Times, might believe socialized medicine is worth the upfront cost, but it’s traditionally been up to politicians to offer “larger lens” obfuscations and concoct euphemisms, not journalists.
What’s telling about Rosen‘s Overton window shifting, is that CNN moderators already engage in the type of politicking he demands. We saw a pristine example of it when Anderson Cooper asked former vice president Joe Biden to comment on the exceptional business luck of his son Hunter: “President Trump has falsely accused your son of doing something wrong while serving on a company board in Ukraine,” Cooper began his query. “I want to point out there’s no evidence of wrongdoing by either one of you…”
Politicians falsely accuse each other of things all the time and yet I can’t imagine any situation in which an ostensibly unbiased moderator would ever preemptively dismiss the core contention of “question” in this manner for a Republican. Biden was basically forced to repeat Cooper’s “question” back to him in answer form.
Would Anderson, for instance, ever start a question with, “Mr. President, Democrats have falsely accused you conspiring with Russia to steal the 2016 election. I want to point out there’s no evidence of wrongdoing by you…?”
Of course, as a political matter, there’s plenty of evidence of “wrongdoing,” which is not the same as criminality. Hunter Biden made hundreds of thousands of dollars off the last name of his powerful father. Has CNN investigated, or shown even perfunctory curiosity, about whether Biden ever advocated for policies that benefitted his son? At Amtrak? In China? In Ukraine? How could you after preemptively instructing your audience that any complaints against Biden are “conspiracy theories.”
This is all just a long way of saying: In an era where journalists revolt when the New York Times accidentally offers an unbiased headline, we have little reason to trust major media outlets. But if there’s any question where the hackery begins, the answer is in places like NYU’s journalism school.