Los Angeles Times media critic Tim Rutten is on fire lately. He has been a relentless—and no doubt lonely—proponent of critical thinking during this insane election season. Last week, in a column called "CNN: Corrupt News Network," he seemed to the only one noticing how the Republican presidential debate was severely skewed towards the network's own ratings strategy of starting a new Spanish (speaking)-American War at the expense of the public interest.
The United States is at war in the Middle East and Central Asia, the economy is writhing like a snake with a broken back, oil prices are relentlessly climbing toward $100 a barrel and an increasing number of Americans just can't afford to be sick with anything that won't be treated with aspirin and bed rest. So, when CNN brought the Republican presidential candidates together this week for what is loosely termed a "debate," what did the country get but a discussion of immigration, Biblical inerrancy and the propriety of flying the Confederate flag?
In fact, this most recent debacle masquerading as a presidential debate raises serious questions about whether CNN is ethically or professionally suitable to play the political role the Democratic and Republican parties recently have conceded it. Selecting a president is, more than ever, a life and death business, and a news organization that consciously injects itself into the process… incurs a special responsibility to conduct itself in a dispassionate and, most of all, disinterested fashion. When one considers CNN's performance, however, the adjectives that leap to mind are corrupt and incompetent.
Corruption is a strong word. But consider these facts: The gimmick behind Wednesday's debate was that the questions would be selected from those that ordinary Americans submitted to the video sharing Internet website YouTube, which is owned by Google. According to CNN, its staff culled through 5,000 submissions to select the handful that were put to the candidates. That process essentially puts the lie to the vox populi aura the association with YouTube was meant to create. When producers exercise that level of selectivity, the questions -- whoever initially formulated and recorded them -- actually are theirs.
That's where things begin to get troubling, because CNN chose to devote the first 35 minutes of this critical debate to a single issue -- immigration. Now, if that leaves you scratching your head, it's probably because you're included in the 96% of Americans who do not think immigration is the most important issue confronting this country.
This week, in "Media prey on wrong question," he rightly ranted about Mitt Romney's recent "JFK Speech" about whether a Mormon should run for president, which has dominated political coverage for the past few days. "What was missing was any discussion of the numerous and very legitimate questions that ought to be asked about religion ," he suggested, noting that people should worry less about Romney and more about Huckabee.
Romney, after all, simply does what most religiously affiliated Americans do; he practices the faith into which he was born. Huckabee, by contrast, is a Baptist minister. Has the notion of distinct temporal and spiritual spheres -- each with its proper concerns and distinct competency -- really been so utterly obliterated that the political media simply shrug at this? Doesn't anybody think it's worth asking whether it's proper or even desirable for a clergyman to occupy the White House?
One of the suspicions Romney was forced to address was the notion that, as a Mormon chief executive, he would be compelled to accept direction from his church's leaders, even if it means acting in ways contrary to the nation's interest. In other words, some ancient Mormon elder in Salt Lake City is going to pick up the telephone and order President Romney to do something kooky. Huckabee, by contrast, already believes kooky things for religious reasons…
Then there's the issue of the Iowa campaign ads in which Huckabee declares he is "the Christian candidate." We're all sophisticated enough to understand that's a not-so-subtle way of saying that, as a Mormon, Romney isn't a Christian in the eyes of most evangelicals. However, neither are Catholics, Unitarians or Quakers, let alone Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Bahais or -- God help them -- the despised atheists. That's the thing about religious bigotry -- and the ad is nothing less -- once it is set loose, like the angel of death, it has a logic of its own. Surely, somebody in the national campaign news corps must think this is an issue worth raising with the avuncular Arkansas pastor?
Most have compared Romney's speech to one John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 insisting that a Catholic candidate could maintain a separation between church and state. But of course Romney was defending a role for religion in government. By contrast, Rutten notices that instead of crafting a message designed to appeal to fundamentalist voters, Kennedy's speech involved consulting with Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, "American-style religious liberty's foremost defenders."
Murray, who later would have a hand in writing the Second Vatican Council's epochal declaration on religious liberty, argued that the West's Anglo-American political tradition had given rise to a deep new appreciation of human dignity, one that required individual believers to take autonomous responsibility for their religious beliefs independent of the state…Thus Kennedy, who used the word Catholic 14 times in his speech, could tell the ministers: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I was going to nominate Rutten to host the next debate. But what the hell, let's just nominate him for president.