Anatomy of cable news: how CNN warped their own Obama interview
This is a post about how context gets lost in translation. Bear with me as I break down how Chris Cuomo twisted the intent and content of a perfectly legitimate interview that had just aired on his network.
Monday night, CNN featured an hour-long interview between Anderson Cooper and former President Barack Obama during the 8pm hour. It was a thoughtful discussion about our democracy, the Big Lie in the Republican Party, and civil rights. Anderson Cooper should be applauded for breaking format to allow a long-form conversation in which Obama described the problems our country faces and what he sees as possible solutions. Needless to say, it did not surprise me to hear Obama blame the "siloing" of the media, along with other structural problems, and suggest the need for conversations to bring us back together. (For reference, you can read the full transcript here.)
Unfortunately, at the start of the very next hour, Chris Cuomo brought us all back to cable news reality where complicated problems are made to look simple. Throughout his opening segment, Cuomo emphasized how Donald Trump and the GOP are to blame for the current dysfunction, but he cut off Obama's description of the harmful media environment. The former president brought up those points organically in his answers, and to his credit, Anderson Cooper also asked about them throughout the interview. What Cuomo did is cherry pick the most divisive parts, a common occurrence on cable news, while ignoring his own role in the polarization of this country. It was very meta.
Here is the first clip Cuomo played at the top of his 9pm hour. He cut off most of Obama's answer -- yes, I'm sure for time, because Obama is a slow talker -- but he (or his producers) removed context and the equally relevant point that the media also has an important role. I'm posting both the Cuomo transcript, then below that, the full Cooper transcript as the interview aired at 8pmET.
Obama suggested the Democrats need to get together, all of them, to fight against what he sees as a uniquely toxic opposition. Listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: I think we have to worry, when one of our major political parties is willing to embrace, a way of thinking, about our democracy that would be unrecognizable and unacceptable, even five years ago, or a decade ago. When you look at some of the laws that are being passed, at the state legislative level, and when that's all done, against the backdrop of large numbers of Republicans having been convinced wrongly that there was something fishy about the last election, we've got a problem. (END VIDEO CLIP)
Yes, Obama said that. But he also mentioned some other essential factors for why our democracy seems to be teetering. Obama stated "it is also important for us to figure out, how do we start once again being able to tell a common story about where this country goes" and suggests the media is culpable. What's more, the clip Cuomo led with came from the middle of an even longer discussion in which they had been discussing the role of the media. But Cuomo plucked out Obama's most partisan clip to lead the discussion.
This is the full exchange and Obama's full answer. (NOTE: I bolded the media portions of these full transcripts throughout this post to help readers get a sense of how much that was a part of Obama's interview.)
COOPER: In "Promised Land," you write, "Our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of a crisis." Since you wrote that, there was the attack on the Capitol. OBAMA: Yes. COOPER: You have got the big lie being pushed continually-- OBAMA: Right. COOPER: -- by not only the former president, but Republicans in Congress. OBAMA: Right. COOPER: Are we still just teetering on the brink, or are we in crisis? OBAMA: Well, I -- (LAUGHTER) OBAMA: I think -- I think we have to worry when one of our major political parties is willing to embrace a way of thinking about our democracy that would be unrecognizable and unacceptable even five years ago or a decade ago. When you look at some of the laws that are being passed at the state legislative level, where legislators are basically saying, we're going to take away the certification of election processes from civil servants, you know, secretaries of state, people who are just counting ballots. And we're going to put it in the hands of partisan legislatures, who may or may not decide that a state's electoral votes should go to one person or another, and when that's all done against the backdrop of large numbers of Republicans having been convinced, wrongly, that there was something fishy about the last election, we have got a problem. And this is part of the reason why I think the conversation around voting rights at a national level is important. This is why I think conversations about some of the institutional and structural barriers to our democracy working better, like the elimination of the filibuster or the end to partisan gerrymandering, is important. But this is why it is also important for us to figure out, how do we start once again being able to tell a common story about where this country goes? And I -- that is not just the job of politicians, although I think elected officials have an important role. That's where the media is going to have to play an important role. That is where companies have to play an important role. All of us, as citizens, have to recognize that the path towards an undemocratic America is not going to happen in just one bang. It happens in a series of steps. And when you look at what's happened in places like Hungary and in Poland, that obviously did not have the same traditions, democratic traditions, that we did, they weren't as deeply rooted, and yet, as recently as 10 years ago, were functioning democracies, and now, essentially, have become authoritarian.
The former president noted it's not just the job of politicians to fix things. He made a point to say, the media has a responsible role. This is critical from my perspective, when Obama specified: "that is not just the job of politicians, although I think elected officials have an important role. That's where the media is going to have to play an important role." And I don't think it was an accident that he follow up by describing how other countries have fallen prey to autocrats as a result.
This is just one of several times Obama invokes the responsibility of the news media. Unfortunately, Cuomo did not ask James Carville about that at all. He skipped over it entirely.
In the next clip Cuomo played, he highlights how Obama hammers Trump and the Republican Party -- but again, cuts out any reference to the role of the media. This is the edited exchange, as Cuomo aired it.
Now, in terms of what the former president is trying to accomplish here, in his interview, he's never been known as a hammer, OK? But he did nail Trump as the agent of the animus that is all around us right now, and faulted the Right, the Party, of the Republicans, for being little more than a water boy. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: I thought that there were enough guardrails institutionally that even after Trump was elected, that you would have the so-called Republican establishment, who would say "OK, it's a problem, if the White House isn't - doesn't seem to be concerned about Russian meddling," or "it's a problem if we have a president, who's saying that Neo Nazis marching in Charlottesville, "There're good people on both sides." [21:05:00] The degree to which we did not see that Republican establishment, say, "Hold on! Timeout! That's not acceptable. That's not who we are," but rather be cowed into accepting, and then finally culminating in January 6th, where what originally was, "Oh, don't worry. This isn't going anywhere. We're just letting Trump and others vent," and then suddenly, you now have large portions of an elected Congress, going along with the falsehood. I didn't expect that there would be so few people who would say, "Well, I don't mind losing my office, because this is too important. America's too important." ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Some things are more important than just-- OBAMA: "Our democracy is too important." (END VIDEO CLIP) CUOMO: Isn't that interesting that a former president, and a man of his sophistication, is surprised that the Party of Trump is choosing to stay in power, versus throw themselves, on the mercy of any kind of higher democratic appeal? I mean, look, we're all past being surprised by just about anything in our politics, right? Obama sees the problem. But he didn't articulate a solid solution, not that that's his job. I don't know that there is one. Is there a solution for his party or for our country in this moment?
Cuomo says Obama defined the problem, which according to the clip he played is the Republican party and how it's clinging to power. Cuomo then says Obama didn't articulate a solution. However, Obama DID describe a solution, but maybe it was one Cuomo didn't want to hear, or didn't have time to hear, because, granted, it is a long and winding answer. But this is a perfect example of how cable news dumbs down and polarizes a conversation.
In this full answer, Obama blames Republicans as well as the media -- but he also gives credit to some Republicans who stood up for truth, AND (thanks to Cooper's insightful prodding) specifies, "the nationalization of media" as a problem (i.e., cable news) and the need to "create institutions and occasions in which we can come together and have a conversation."
This whole exchange between Anderson Cooper and Barack Obama is useful.
COOPER: You write about Sarah Palin, about her brief ascendancy, and you talk about dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the Republican Party coming center stage. Did you ever thing it would get this dark? OBAMA: No, I thought that there were enough guardrails institutionally that even after Trump was elected that you would have the so-called Republican establishment who would say, OK, you know, it's a problem if the White House isn't -- doesn't seem to be concerned about Russian meddling or it's a problem if we have a president who is saying that, you know, neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, there are good people on both sides. You know, that's a little bit beyond the pale. And the degree to which we did not see that Republican establishment say hold on, time out, that's not acceptable, that's not who we are, but rather be cowed into accepting it, and then finally culminating in January 6th where what originally was, oh, don't worry, this isn't going anywhere, we're just letting Trump and others vent, and then suddenly you now have large portions of an elected Congress going along with the falsehood that there were problems with the election. COOPER: And the leadership of the GOP briefly for, you know, one night when they still had this sort of scent of fear in them, you know, going against the president-- [20:25:05] OBAMA: And then, poof. Suddenly, everybody was back in-line. Now what that -- the reason for that is because the base believed it. And the base believed it because this had been told to them not just by the president but by the media that they watch. And nobody stood up and said stop, this is enough, this is not true. I won't say nobody, let me correct it. There were some very brave people who did their jobs like the secretary of state in Georgia who was then viciously attacked for it. And all those congressmen started looking around and they said, you know what, I'll lose my job. I'll get voted out of office. Another way of saying this is, I didn't expect that there would be so few people who would say well, I don't mind losing my office because this is too important. America is too important. COOPER: Some things are more important than just-- OBAMA: Our democracy is too important. We didn't see that. Now, you know, I'm still the hope and change guy and so my hope is that the tides will turn. But that does require each of us to understand that this experiment in democracy is not self-executing. It doesn't happen just automatically. It happens because each successive generation says these values, these truths we hold self- evident, this is important. We're going to invest in it and sacrifice for it and we'll stand up for it even when it's not politically convenient. COOPER: One of the things you write, "we need to explain to each other who we are and where we are going." I mean, as somebody who has dedicated myself to storytelling, that really resonates with me. But I wonder, we -- are we as a country still willing to listen to each other's stories? OBAMA: Well, I think this is the biggest challenge we have is that we don't have the kinds of shared stories that we used to. There has always been a division along the lines of race, right? You know, we have 400 years of whites and blacks not being able to have shared experiences because of slavery and segregation and so forth. But even within, let's say, the white community, right, the stories of kids who are growing up in Manhattan and the stories of kids who are grows up in Abilene, Texas, and the stories of the kid who is growing up in Montana, those stories no longer meet, partly because of the segment -- you know, the siloing of the media, the internet, entertainment. We occupy different worlds and it becomes that much more difficult for us to hear each other, see each other. The thing I learned, first as an organizer and then as an elected official, as a politician, was when you start hearing people's stories, you always find a thread of your own story in somebody else. And the minute that recognition happens, that becomes the basis for a community. COOPER: But it does seem like something has changed so that it has become so extreme that we're not even allowing ourselves to get into a position where we can see that commonality. I've heard in the past you talk about when you were starting out in politics, you'd go down to southern Illinois to very conservative districts. OBAMA: Yes, they would give me a hearing. COOPER: Right. OBAMA: Yes. No, and I think that has changed. Part of it is the nationalization of media, the nationalization of politics. You know, the fact is that you used to have a bunch of local newspapers, local TV stations, people weren't having these highly ideological debates but they were kind of more focused on what is happening day-to-day. And part of it is also the structure of our economy and our communities. Look, it used to be that a high school, the average high school in America, the average public high school, you would have the banker's kid and janitor's kid in the same school. And they would interact and they'd -- their parents would be both going to the same football game and would have to know each other. And if it turned out that there was a talented kid of a janitor who also happened to be on the football team, the banker president might say, hey, why don't you come work at the bank here, because he knew that person. Now, we have more economic stratification and segregation. [20:30:02] You combine that with racial stratification and the siloing of the media, so you don't have just Walter Cronkite delivering the news-- COOPER: Right. OBAMA: -- but you have 1,000 different venues, all that has contributed to that sense that we don't have anything in common. And so, so much of our work is going to have to involve not just policy, but it's also, how do we create institutions and occasions in which we can come together and have a conversation?
Again, Obama spells it out at length, concluding with this point: "Now, we have more economic stratification and segregation. You combine that with racial stratification and the siloing of the media, so you don't have just Walter Cronkite delivering the news-- but you have 1,000 different venues, all that has contributed to that sense that we don't have anything in common. And so, so much of our work is going to have to involve not just policy, but it's also, how do we create institutions and occasions in which we can come together and have a conversation."
That sounds pretty clear to me. Our media environment divides us to the point we think we don't have anything in common and we need to create institutions in which we can actually come together and have a conversation.
Here is the third Obama clip Cuomo aired.
CUOMO: Obama spoke about the state of play within his own party. I want your take on what he said. Here's his sound. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: I think Democrats, Lord knows, when I was President, I was getting a lot of incoming from my own base. And so, it's not symmetrical. But what is true is for all of us, there is a great danger that we just shut out anything that contradicts our own sense of righteousness, in these big debates. (END VIDEO CLIP)
The way that clip is edited makes it seem that Obama is making the point that Democrats are fighting an asymmetric war, which they may be, but Obama's answer actually also invoked social media and "how we are able now to just filter out anything that contradicts our own biases" -- placing blame on the media. Furthermore, they discuss how we demonize the other side and Obama suggests rebuilding local media as a way to heal. Again -- Cuomo cut out any discussion of the media to focus on politics. That was half the discussion, but not all of it, as you can see here.
COOPER: You wrote about the importance of getting exposed to other people's truths, and that is how attitudes change. What happens when the only truth that people are willing to expose them to is their own? OBAMA: Yes. Well, look, this is part of the challenge. It's part of the challenge with social media. I think there's been a lot of conversation about how we are able now to just filter out anything that contradicts our own biases, prejudices and predispositions. It's not symmetrical. I have to say this. The truth is, is that, on what are -- what at least the right would consider liberal media, like CNN, you guys will still take Democrats to task for things. I think Democrats -- lord knows, when I was president, I was getting a lot of incoming from my own base. [20:34:56] And so, it's not symmetrical. But what is true is, for all of us, there is a great danger that we just shut out anything that contradicts our own sense of righteousness in these big debates. COOPER: Not only that, but then we otherize the other. OBAMA: And we demonize the other side. And so that is going to require steady effort. It probably is not going to be done at the federal level. It's probably going to involve communities finding ways to rebuild that sense of neighborliness, working together, conversations. You know, one of the things that, having been out of office for a while, I have gone back to thinking about is, how can we do more bottom-up work to rebuild communities, to rebuild local media, to rebuild local conversations, because that's where I think there's still the most hope.
Cuomo completely ignored the media discussion, which was a common thread throughout Coopers's interview, to focus on politics as a way of discussing what Obama said about the political discord in the nation. Why did he avoid those questions? Oh, wait. At the end of his hour, Cuomo DID play a clip of Obama talking about the media. Needless to say, he chose a clip in which Obama calls out conservative outlets.
CUOMO: I don't know how much this will matter, but it should matter. Former president Obama took time to call out a certain section of the media. Listen. [21:55:00] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: I also think that there are certain right-wing media venues, for example, that monetize and capitalize, on stoking the fear and resentment, of a White population that is witnessing a changing America, and seeing demographic changes, and do everything they can, to give people a sense that their way of life is threatened, and that people are trying to take advantage of them. And we're seeing it right now, right, where you would think with all the public policy debates that are taking place right now, that, the Republican Party would be engaged in a significant debate about how are we going to deal with the economy, and what are we going to do about climate change, and what are we going to do about - lo and behold, the single most important issue to them currently right now is critical race theory. Who knew that that was the threat to our Republic? (END VIDEO CLIP) CUOMO: Once again, he's right about the problem. What is the solution? We'll be right back.
Yes, right-wing media make money off of stoking fear and resentment. Fox News created that model, not incidentally, emulating the likes of Rush Limbaugh after the Fairness Doctrine was killed. (Limbaugh would not have been the same, nor as successful, had the Doctrine still been on the books.) But in their need to compete for eyeballs, CNN has also learned and adopted the same strategies to stoke fear and resentment. By editing President Obama's words the way he did, Cuomo omitted a very big factor as Obama described it, which is the role of the media. Cuomo wants you to think that the Republican Party is to blame and is responsible for all the threats to our democracy right now, and whether that is true or not, that is not ONLY what Obama said. Obama was much more careful to discuss the media environment and the siloing of our national conversations.
Anderson Cooper should be applauded for giving Obama the space for that conversation. Cuomo should not. I hope one day, the cable news format will make room for an honest, self-reflective conversation. Frankly, I'd be glad to see that dialogue anywhere in public going forward. Unfortunately, Chris Cuomo is not alone in his dismissal of the media's responsibility in the denigration of our country.