CNS' Intern Antics
It seems the main activity of student interns at CNSNews.com is pestering members of Congress with biased gotcha questions. PLUS: Why has CNS let its interns from Liberty U. write fawning articles about the school and its Trump-supporting president?
By Terry Krepel
It's a time-honored tradition at CNS: Send its college-student interns out to pester members of Congress with the resume-padding busywork of asking them a quasi-loaded gotcha question. Part of the point of this exercise is get the intern some resume material in the form of being able to say they got to go to the Capitol and asked a member of Congress a question. But it's a gotcha exercise too; any congressperson who fails to give the conservatively correct answer will be pilloried at CNS, with the hope of blowing up the incident into the larger conservative media (and the intern can get partial credit for that too).
Look at where it got former intern Sam Dorman. He was a CNS intern in the summer of 2015 when he got a bit of attention for asking an anti-abortion gotcha question to Nancy Pelosi that piqued her anger, then stoked right-wing outrage about being described as a "anti-abortion protester" over the question and demanded that he be acknowledged as "a credentialed member of the press" (though he later admitted that his question was designed to provoke hostility toward him). The folks who run CNS, the Media Research Center, then tried to raise money over the manufactured controversy, which told us that the question was, in fact, an act of protest -- despite the fact that Dorman bragged afterward about how he "knew I had pushed the right button" when Pelosi "erupted in anger."
Dorman has managed to parlay that incident into a career: he's now a reporter for Fox News, which like CNS has similarly blurry lines between reporting and advocacy, and where much of his output is the usual right-wing stenography that wouldn't look out of place at CNS.
We've already noted how, in 2018, CNS sent out its interns to ask at least six senators a question about the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel purportedly being unconstitutional that came directly from its favorite right-wing radio host, Mark Levin. That sort of agenda-driven use of interns has continued.
Alex Madajian worked as a CNS intern in the spring of 2019, and his second-to-last article on May 24 served up that bias-driven drudgery:
Although the Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee have issued a subpoena to the IRS demanding the tax returns of President Donald Trump for 2013-2018, Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said he has no plans to demand the release of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) tax returns.
That's right -- Madajian was forced to hound 42 members of Congress with a partisan series of questions because someone at CNS was mad that Democrats are seeking Trump's tax returns.
Madajian went on to complain that "The committee has not demanded the tax returns of any previous president," but he didn't mention there was no need to because all presidents since Richard Nixon have released them on their own.
The summer 2019 crop
CNS' summer interns spent late June of 2019 hounding congressfolk with the highly scripted, pro-Trump-biased question: “Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution says the president ‘shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.’ Do you think that the president has a constitutional duty to enforce the immigration laws on the books?”
CNS got a whopping 14 articles out of this schtick, one for each congressperson they cornered on the question:
There's little actual news value here. It does, however, reinforces the idea that CNS is less and less about reporting the news and more and more about crafting right-wing propaganda.
That's pretty much how the rest of the summer played out. In mid-July, CNS served up a few more stragglers for its previous gotcha question about enforcing the immigration laws; this time, Sens. Robert Menendez, Patty Murray, Jon Tester, Angus King and Steve Daines and Reps. Andy Harris and Robert Aderholt got the treatment. That's a total of 21 congressfolk who got the CNS treatment over this question.
Also in July, as budget talks were going on between Congress and the White House, interns were sent out to ask members of Congress a questions almost certainly scripted by editor in chief Terry Jeffrey: “The federal government spent $4.1 trillion in fiscal 2018 and ran a deficit of $779 billion dollars. Does the government spend too much money?” And several responded, mostly Republicans who gave the conservatively correct answer:
At the end of the month, after a deal had been reached and the House had already passed it, the interns were apparently sent out to try this again to Republican senators with another obviously Jeffrey-penned question: “The recent budget deal passed by the House last week allows the government to borrow a limitless amount of money until July 31, 2021. Do you support that?” They were only able to pin down Republicans Mitt Romney, Rick Scott and Mike Braun.
For what was apparently their final project of the summer -- and the sole question of the summer targeted at Democrats and non-members of Congress -- the interns collaborated on an Aug. 8 article about their latest gotcha question:
Despite the well-documented violence of the radical left Antifa group -- the Department of Homeland Security classifies it as “domestic terrorist violence” not one of the 23 Democrats running for president would condemn Antifa when repeatedly asked by CNSNews.com over the course of 12 business days.
Done like a "news" organization that's more interested in pushing a narrative and generating partisan clickbait than actual news. But is that what these interns should really be learning?
The summer 2020 crop
For the first intern gotcha question from the summer 2020 interns, CNS dipped into its well of anti-LGBT animus to fabricate another attack on Joe Biden with this question: "Joe Biden says that as president he will require federally funded schools to let biological males who identify as females use female bathrooms and locker rooms. Do you support that?"
Here's who got dragooned into CNS' game, and how they responded to provide CNS with 11 articles worth of content:
As usual, there's little news value here -- it's mostly an exercise in providing the intern some resume bait by giving them the chance to ask a question of a member of Congress. Plus, any congressperson who fails to give the conservatively correct answer will be pilloried at CNS, with the hope of blowing up the incident into the larger conservative media (and the intern can get partial credit for that too). The only Democrat on CNS' list is Feinstein; the Republicans who were noncommital have likely opened themselves up for attacks from right-wingers like CNS for failing to adequately hate the LGBT community and treating them as human. This is much more about honing right-wing political messages than it is about delivering "news."
The second question of the summer was more benign but, also, more hypocritical. This time, they asked another almost-certainly-Jeffrey-insired deficit-related query: "So far in fiscal 2020, the federal debt has increased by $3.78 trillion. When do you predict the government will pay off the debt it has added this year?" The responses all came from senators:
Of these eight respondents, only Hirono and Warner are Democrats; the rest are Republicans. The question also conveniently omitted the fact that this year's debt was racked up under a Republican-controlled Senate and signed by a Republican president.
The hypocrisy here -- and, unsurprisingly, it was not mentioned in the questioning -- is that CNS' owner, the Media Research Center, played a role in increasing the federal debt by applying for and receiving more than $1 million from the Paycheck Protection Program.
But, then, pushing a message is more important at CNS these days then accuracy or ideological consistency -- or even reporting "news," despite the word being part of its name.
Letting interns write about their school
A September 2019 CNS article by fall intern Kharen Martinez Murcia took the side of Jerry Falwell Jr. following the publication of an exposé in Politico on his tenure as president of Liberty University featuring allegations of self-dealing and creating a culture of fear at the school. She touted Falwell complaining that the criticism was an "attempted coup" that is "partially motivated by his ardent backing of President Donald Trump" while dismissing Falwell's critics as "unnamed sources." Martinez Murcia also repeated Falwell's mendacious defense of a photo of Falwell at a "dance club," an issue because, as she concedes, "Liberty University’s honor code prohibits students from attending dances or consuming alcohol" (though she didn't mention that more photos of Falwell at the club surfaced).
But it wasn't until the end of the article that a parenthetical disclosure appeared: "Kharen Martinez Murcia is a third-year student at Liberty University."
While it's nice and proper that Martinez Murcia's connection to Liberty was disclosed, that connection also means that she shouldn't have done this story at all. It can be easily argued that the article's pro-Falwell bias was because she didn't want to run afoul of him and the alleged culture of fear he's fostering at the school she's attending -- meaning she has a personal interest in writing the article the way she did.
But if all Martinez Murcia is learning is how to write biased articles, it's not really much of a true journalistic experience. It does, unfortunately, prepare her to work at Liberty's student newspaper, where Falwell meddled in coverage and forced student journalists to submit every article to a Falwell assistant for review.
The following summer, another CNS intern from Liberty gave her school even more favorable publicity. A July 20 article by Bailey Duran -- whose CNS bio describes her as "a rising senior at Liberty University" -- served up more uncritical praise of her school's Trump-loving president:
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. said more Evangelical Christians are in support of President Donald Trump in 2020 than in 2016, adding, “It wouldn’t surprise me if it was higher than 90 percent.”
Duran even did some sucking up to Falwell about the political climate on campus:
Falwell vocally supports the president on the campus of Liberty University. Students are able to register to vote and vote in-person on campus.
What Duran didn't mention, however -- beyond the climate of fear that keeps most Liberty students and faculty from criticizing Falwell publicly -- is that the convocation guests are not politically diverse -- they are usually either Christian or conservative; one convocation last November featured Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News host-turned-Junior's girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, where they discussed "President Trump’s success in the face of media attacks, the administration’s fight to support constitutional and conservative values, the pro-life movement, and support for the nation’s military" and "The incivility and hostility of the political Left Liberals are rarely invited to take part.
The article also did not disclose that Duran is a Liberty student.
But when Falwell Jr. posted a photo of himself on Instagram with his pants unzipped joined by a woman who wasn't his wife also with unzipped pants -- an act that was the final straw for the Liberty board of trustees, which forced him to take an indefinite leave of absence from his Liberty duties -- neither Duran nor anyone else at CNS thought this was newsworthy, even though Duran was still writing other articles for CNS at the time.
And when news of Falwell and his wife's alleged sexual involvement with a onetime pool boy exploded -- forcing Falwell to resign for good as Liberty president -- CNS reported nothing at all about it to its readers; Duran's internship had ended by that time.
So it appears that Falwell Jr. gets the Trump treatment at CNS -- only good news is reported.