If you're surprised that CNN will co-sponsor a Republican presidential primary debate with the Tea Party Express, you're not paying attention. CNN played an early and vital role in legitimizing the Tea Party Express when it was seen by Tea Party Patriots and some other groups as a partisan effort to capitalize on the grassroots movement. Amy Kremer, president of the TPE, used to be a board member of TPP, but was dismissed from that group over her increasing role in Express events.
But in March and April 2010, CNN embedded with the Tea Party express on its second national tour, the one that Sarah Palin joined for speeches in Searchlight, NV and Boston. CNN's Shannon Travis even wrote a widely-circulated rebuttal to the idea that the movement was racist. (Travis is black.)
CNN was the only national news outlet on this Western leg of the tour. We had a full team on the ground: myself, correspondent Ed Lavandera, producers Tracy Sabo and Jim Spellman and the crew of the CNN Express bus. For Spellman, it was his third Tea Party Express tour.
Together, we beamed out images of the anger and the optimism, profiled African-Americans who are proud to be in the Tea Party's minority and showed activists stirred by "God Bless America" or amused by a young rapper who strung together rhymes against the president and Democrats.
The CNN Express traveled with the Tea Party Express buses for hundreds of miles, from rally to rally to rally.
Being at a Tea Party rally is not quite like seeing it on TV, in newspapers or online. That's the reason CNN is covering this political movement -- and doing so in ways few others can or choose to do.
The Tea Party Express tour, and its highly uncritical coverage of same, was CNN's first salvo in a series of fairly positive specials about conservative activists in 2010. (One of those specials was marred when James O'Keefe and some other activists bungled a prank on CNN's reporter.) The Tea Party Express has been readily available to CNN for quotes and on-air commentary; Mark Williams gave CNN exclusive interviews after he quit the group over the backlash to some racist comments he'd made in jest.
So, that's the backstory. That's separate from the question of whether it's a good idea for CNN to co-sponsor an event with a PAC that makes political endorsements and donates to political candidates.
"Can you say conflict of interest?" said Maine Tea Party leader Andrew Ian Dodge upon hearing the news. "Haven't they [the Tea Party Express] spent the last two years plugging Palin to the hilt?"
UPDATE: I asked Tea Party Express founder and strategist Sal Russo whether the group would refrain from making candidate endorsements since it's co-sponsoring this debate.
"We haven’t made decision one way or another, but I would expect that we would at some point." said Russo. "Certainly we haven’t decided that, but just my feelings about it. We won’t endorse before the debate, obviously."