CNN hosted three presidential debates last week, two for the Democrats and one for the Republicans. Democratic candidates were awarded twice as much airtime in a three-day period. CNN has its work cut out for it if it wants to be seen as impartial in the upcoming presidential election.
What tilted the schedule in the Democrats' favor? Both Sunday's and Tuesday's two-hour traditional debates in New Hampshire with each party were hosted by Wolf Blitzer. But on Monday, CNN devoted an hour to the top three Democrat contenders, hosted by the religious-left group Sojourners. Each received 15 minutes of airtime. When that hour was over, CNN awarded most of the "second tier" -- four more Democratic contenders -- more time to discuss their faith in individual interviews on "Paula Zahn Now." That's almost another two hours for the Democrats.
The Sojourners forum was not a debate, but a series of three individual interviews with (in order) John Edwards, Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, all of whom were given long, flowing chunks of free airtime to impress the public with an image of devout faith and compassionate wonkery. Edwards was asked nine questions, but Obama and Clinton were asked only five in their 15-minute periods. Of these 19 queries, 11 came from CNN and eight were entreaties from liberal Sojourners-selected questioners.
Here's the most generous example of answer time. Obama talked about new solutions to foil poverty for about five and a half minutes before CNN moderator Soledad O'Brien broke in, but only to say soothingly, "You've got 15 minutes, and you can spend them any way you'd like, but we've got a lot of questions." Obama continued for another 90 seconds before O'Brien moved to a wrap-up question.
Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine, is a prominent opponent of the religious right who believes liberals and Democrats should be seen as every bit as Christian (and probably more so) than the conservatives. At the event's end, CNN's Soledad O'Brien underlined that the event let the candidates show "how much of a role faith plays" in their lives and politics, and: "It's very important. I think where the Democrats have learned a lesson, really, is in embracing and talking much more about their faith."
So how on Earth does this not sound like DNC-TV?
The puffery continued on other networks the next day. Take CBS's Harry Smith the next morning: "The top three Democratic presidential candidates met last night at a forum on religion, a very familiar subject to Sen. Hillary Clinton. Faith has always been a huge part of her life."
So how does CNN balance itself now? O'Brien claimed at the show's end that it would eventually be balanced out with "a similar forum on faith and politics with Republican candidates." Wallis, pretending to be nonpartisan, said he would like to host a Republican event. That better not be the "balance" CNN is talking about.
If it ever materializes, a Republican forum on faith and politics on CNN must be hosted by a group that is just as friendly to the Republicans as the leftists at Sojourners are to the Democrats. Each candidate was greeted with stage-shaking ovations and screams during the Democrats' affair -- the same setting should be established for the Republicans.
But CNN wasn't only offering free airtime to the Democrats. It was providing a big whopping present to Wallis and his group's fortunes. This was the central event of the annual Sojourners "Pentecost" conference, used to attract hundreds of conference bookings and add glitz and glamour and the image of great political influence to Wallis.
Wallis was very busy hitting up his supporters for donations after the CNN event: "Click here to make a donation of $50, $100 or more to support the work of Sojourners/Call to Renewal as we raise a prophetic voice in the 2008 election campaign. ... In the 36 years since we founded Sojourners, I cannot remember a moment of opportunity as tangible as this." CNN is offering "tangible moments of opportunity" for left-wing fund-raisers.
If CNN really wants to balance this event out, it needs to partner with a religious-conservative group -- for example, the Family Research Council is holding a Values Voters Summit in October -- and let a group like FRC have every tangible opportunity CNN just handed to the left-wingers.