Editors note: we reached out to CNN for a statement on this before publication, and a CNN spokesperson provided us with the following statement the next day:
Though we said at the beginning of the Town Hall that the audience was made up of Democrats and Independents, we should have more fully identified any political affiliations.
Monday night, Bernie Sanders did a town hall on CNN, and for the most part, he was asked substantive questions and answered in kind. One minor exception came in a question about the sexual harassment that took place in his 2016 campaign. His response to the initial reports was too dismissive, and last night he wasn’t able to fully articulate how he would stop it from happening again, other than saying that his campaign is committing lots of resources and he will have the “strongest protocols” and utilize an “independent commission” that people can bring their complaints to, without really elaborating on who or what that commission would do.
The bigger problem here is that we find ourselves in a confusing situation thanks to cable news not adhering to basic standards of journalism. (Unfortunately, that’s an evergreen sentence.) When I watched the town hall live last night, this question seemed completely normal and well within the bounds of what Bernie was brought there to talk about, but now that it has been revealed that the question was asked by an intern at a major lobbying firm, you cannot help but wonder about the intent behind this, as well as CNN’s role in selecting this questioner while not disclosing her workplace.
Again, Bernie's campaign issues with sexual harassment are a major storyline going into 2020 and given that he still hasn't completely addressed it, he should be asked these questions. The problem is that when the question comes from an intern at a major DC lobbying shop—and that fact is not disclosed—you cannot help but wonder who really asked that question of Bernie. And a closer look at Cassidy & Associates' financial partners paints a picture of a group that really, really would not enjoy a Sanders presidency.
If it was just this one questioner, we could chalk it up to a mistake, or an acknowledgement that CNN reasonably didn't believe that an intern needed to disclose her workplace. But this wasn't just one questioner. There were a bunch of audience members who are far more active in politics than CNN disclosed. Watching the town hall live made it seem as if these were just folks from all walks of life, when in reality many of these supposedly innocuous questioners were political operatives in one way or another, as this thread revealed.
— CNN called Tara Ebersole a “former biology professor” when her LinkedIn page lists her current job description as “Chair, Baltimore County Democratic Party” since 2016. Further, her husband was part of Hillary Clinton's leadership council in Baltimore in 2016.
— Abena McAllister was labeled “an active Democrat,” which is far less descriptive than the Charles County Democratic Central Committee's description of her as their Chair.
— Yunjung Seo was simply called a “George Washington Student” by CNN, despite her LinkedIn page saying she also works for the Katz Watson Group, a fundraising and consulting outlet.
— Michelle Gregory was simply listed as a “Maryland voter” by CNN, but a cursory Google search reveals her to be much more active in politics than just voting.
Then there's this:
I watched the entire town hall last night, and none of the questions asked by these people resonated as unfair to me. There were a couple asked by other people that were based on wrong assumptions (like the myth that Bernie’s only support comes from young white dudes), but it’s hard to blame individuals for coming to wrong conclusions like that when the Democratic Party’s infrastructure has invested so much time and energy gaslighting the public into thinking that way.
In fact, the worst question last night came from Wolf Blitzer, who went off of the New York Times’ initial reporting on Elizabeth Warren’s stance on reparations, when a clarification made by The Washington Post the next day walked back the far more certain NYT characterization of her position and certainly did not indicate that “she wants to support reparations” like Wolf asserted. One of Bernie’s better moments came when he challenged Wolf on the basis of his assumption while saying he agreed with Warren’s quote about reforming the system to distribute more funds to reach “distressed communities.” There’s a big difference between that and supporting a policy to financially compensate every living descendant of American slavery, and four days ago, WaPo reported that Warren, Julian Castro and Kamala Harris did not respond to questions about clarifying their stance around that reality of what the word “reparations” means.
But back to my main point: really the only problem in all this is that because CNN did not disclose many of these questioners’ ties to politics, one cannot help wonder why. The famed Bobby Knight quote of “stupid loses more games than smart wins” is Occam’s Razor here, as Wolf Blitzer isn’t exactly universally respected and we have documented CNN’s struggles with the truth before, but the nefarious angle is the elephant in that Washington D.C. room.
There is absolutely, positively no question that elite members of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as major media, despise Bernie Sanders because he openly advocates destroying the system they sit atop. When you bring a bunch of politically-involved people out and depict them as just regular “Maryland voters,” one cannot help but wonder about the motivations behind a decision to do less journalism than is required of the situation. CNN brought a de facto lobbyist on their air and didn’t disclose it. That’s bad.
Being politically-involved doesn’t disqualify these folks from asking questions, and it doesn’t automatically make their motivations disingenuous. These people are still people just like you and me. Had CNN been more accurate in describing the questioners, I wouldn’t be writing this column. The only reason we have to doubt their motivations is because CNN hid crucial context that is easily found in the public record, therefore we cannot help but wonder why CNN left out such vital information (I reached out to CNN and asked them to shed light on why they left out this vital info and will update the piece if I hear back).
Again, the questions themselves last night were almost entirely fine on the surface. Bernie should face tough questions like any other presidential candidate, but we should put all of our cards on the table when going through this stuff (which doubles as my central criticism of Bernie’s handling of the sexual harassment revelations). CNN bringing up these so-called “voters” to ask some of the most politically perilous questions for Bernie comes off as incredibly shady, and doubly so since they didn’t reveal their backgrounds. CNN was either pushing an agenda, or they failed at a very basic tenet of journalism. I don’t have enough information to come to a firm conclusion about CNN’s motivation, but if I assumed that these multiple oversights were intentional as part of a larger anti-Bernie agenda, there would be more journalistic rationale behind my assertion than CNN’s belief that they can get away with characterizing the current Chair of the Baltimore County Democratic Party as simply a “former biology professor.”
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.