CNN Should Stop Fetishizing Conflict at the DNC

Democrats are divided about whether Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. So what? They disagree on lots of more important things too.

As I write, I'm watching a CSPAN live feed of a speech at the DNC, and also a CNN broadcast, where anchors are harping on the fact that Democrats disagreed about a platform plank on Israel's capital. To me, it's absurd that a foreign nation's capital is an issue in an American presidential election.

Among the vast majority of voters, it isn't an issue.

Antonio Villaraigosa, presiding over the convention Wednesday, took a voice vote on the platform plank, and dishonestly declared that one side won a two-thirds majority, when it sounded to everyone present and everyone watching the live feeds as if delegates were evenly divided.

The sham proceedings are a legitimate topic for journalistic inquiry.

But CNN covered it differently. A succession of anchors and correspondents, including Anderson Cooper, from whom I expect better, kept harping on the fact that there wasn't partisan unanimity.

It all went by too quickly for me to transcribe direct quotes.

But the tenor of the coverage was basically, "How did you amateurs permit this disagreement to become public? Aren't Republicans going to attack you now? Didn't you make a gaffe? Who is responsible?"

This is objectionable for several reasons.

1) If the Republicans attack the Democrats, it's perfectly legitimate for journalists to cover it. But this habit of preemptively anticipating future partisan attacks, and treating the fact of having opened oneself up to them as newsworthy, shapes and distorts politics as much as it reports on it.

2) Journalists should focus on whether a platform plank is good or bad policy and the arguments on both sides, not how it's going to play with partisan opponents. And it's unseemly for journalists to say, in effect, "You guys should have done a better job hiding disagreement from the public." If there's any scandal here, it's that Villaraigosa pretended there was more agreement than facts justified, not that Democrats didn't do a good enough job hiding their disagreements.

3) There are all sorts of issues, including issues covered in the Democratic platform, that are the subject of intra-party disagreement. CNN didn't focus its coverage on the Jerusalem issue because it is the most substantively significant or important disagreement, but because the disagreement became public. In other words, their coverage was shaped by conflict rather than substance. And implicit in their coverage was the notion that there's something wrong with open disagreement. Politicos try to hide open disagreement. Journalists should not endorse their worldview. 

4) It's obscene that, in a year when the Democrats have radically changed their platform stance on civil liberties, the press has mostly ignored those significant issues, and focused much more on symbolic discord.

Small children must be told, on occasion, "Sometimes two people who love one another disagree, and argue, but just because you hear them disagreeing doesn't mean anything is wrong."

And it's true in politics too!

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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