The big loser in the Iowa debate? CNN’s reputation


The biggest loser from last night’s Democratic debate (1/14/20) was CNN’s journalistic credibility.

CNN debates have been marked by a tendency to pit one candidate against another, American Gladiators-style (, 8/2/19), so it’s no surprise that the cable network took its own journalistically dubious “scoop” (CNN, 1/13/20)—about Bernie Sanders allegedly telling Elizabeth Warren in 2018 that “he did not believe a woman could win” a race against Donald Trump—and used it as the basis of questions to both Sanders and Warren at its pre–Iowa caucus debate in Des Moines (presented jointly with the Des Moines Register).

But it was less predictable that CNN would frame those questions in such a nakedly one-sided manner, with wording that presumed that the truth was  known about what was really said in a disputed, year-old private conversation. “Senator Sanders,” began CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip:

Senator Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?

Phillip obviously knew that Sanders had unequivocally stated that he had not said that. But by inserting the word “confirmed” into the preface, she put Sanders in the position of someone denying reality—despite the fact that his alleged remark would contradict his public position going back 30 years. And immediately after getting Sanders to reiterate his statement that he never told Warren that a woman couldn’t win the election, Philip turned to Warren and asked: “Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”—a question premised on the assumption that Sanders had just lied about what he had said.

CNN‘s healthcare questions were also nakedly one-sided. In the first debate the network hosted (7/30/19), Jake Tapper started off the night by asking Sanders whether “tak[ing] private health insurance away from more than 150 million Americans, in exchange for government-sponsored healthcare for everyone,” was “political suicide,” and went on to focus on the cost of Medicare for All (, 8/2/19). Last night, Phillip’s first question on healthcare likewise went to Sanders, revisiting that focus on cost:

Senator Sanders, you have consistently refused to say exactly how much your Medicare for All plan is going to cost. Don’t voters deserve to see the price tag before you send them a bill that could cost tens of trillions of dollars?

After Sanders explained that Medicare for All “will cost substantially less than the status quo”—under which healthcare is projected to cost $52 trillion over the next decade—Phillip turned to Biden. But instead of asking him to answer any criticisms of his own plan, she offered him the same Sanders-bashing frame:  “Vice President Biden, does Senator Sanders owe voters a price tag on his healthcare plan?”

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