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CNS' Hot Pestering Intern Summer put its summer interns to work by having them ask biased gotcha questions to members of Congress. Not exactly journalism, but they'll get a few nice clips out of it.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 9/20/2021

For this past summer, did what it usually does: send those interns to the Capitol to pester members of Congress with gotcha questions designed to feed right-wing narratives. It's a partisan exercise designed more for ideological indoctrination than any genuine journalistic experience.

This year, the interns were especially busy on this front, pestering members of Congress -- mostly senators -- with one question a week. They got in eight rounds of questions before their time at CNS ended. Let's look at how biased those questions were.

Round 1

The first round of gotcha questions centered on the federal budget, with a two-part question:

  • “President Biden has presented Congress with a budget that proposes running $14.5 trillion in deficits over the next decade. Will Congress ever balance the budget?”
  • "What year will Congress balance the budget?"

Many of the articles detailing the answer given included some form of this biased boilerplate:

Under Biden's budget proposal, the federal government will continue to deficit spend (accumulate debt) for at least the next 10 years, with total borrowing hitting a combined $14.5 trillion in 2031.

The New York Times has reported, "President Biden would like the federal government to spend $6 trillion in the 2022 fiscal year, and for total spending to rise to $8.2 trillion by 2031. That would take the United States to its highest sustained levels of federal spending since World War II, while running deficits above $1.3 trillion through the next decade." (Emphasis added.)

CNS, by the way, did not show this level of concern about federal budget deficits when a Republican president and Republican-controlled Senate were the ones creating them.

The interns asked this question of 23 senators, with an article dedicated to every. single. one of them. The targets skewed Democratic -- all the better to play gotcha, apparently -- with 14 of the senators being Democrats.

Of course, this is all a biased partisan exercise, designed to give Republicans a platform to virtue-signal on the evils of budget deficits and to shame Democrats for realistically noting that ending federal deficits isn't like flipping a switch and that taxes may need to be raised. Helpfully, Craig Bannister pointed this out in a June 16 summary of the interns' work:

Generally, Republicans said that the U.S. definitely should balance its budget, but they were less certain about when that might happen.

Democrats – such as Senators Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren and Mark Kelly – said it would take more tax revenue to balance the budget. Others tended to be more skeptical, with some saying the budget will never be balanced and others saying that, if it ever is, it won’t be balanced any time soon.

Needless to say, none of these articles mentioned the role of a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Senate in running up deficits in the previous four years.

Round 2

For the second round, the interns invoked the hot-button issue of abortion: "The Supreme Court this fall will review a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Is an unborn baby at 15 weeks a human being?" They also asked a follow-up gotcha for those -- namely, Democrats -- who did not give the conservatively correct answer: "If an unborn baby is not a human being, what species is it?"

Again, 23 senators were asked the question, with Republicans being 12 of them. Democrats who declined to give a direct yes-or-no answer to CNS' questions -- undoubtedly recognizing the gotcha nature of these questions -- got the headline accusation that they "dodge[d]" the question.

Again, these questions are nothing a biased partisan exercise, designed to give Republicans a platform to virtue-signal on the evils of abortion and to shame Democrats for not restricting the rights of women or being eager to overturn a half-century of Supreme Court precedent.

CNS thought this was such an important question to attack Democrats with that it widened the scope of its targets. An intern was sent to Nancy Pelosi's weekly press conference to ambush her:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) did not directly respond to a question from—predicated on the upcoming Supreme Court case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—on whether a 15-week-old unborn baby is a human being.

“Let me just say that I’m a big supporter of Roe vs. Wade,” Pelosi said.


Without answering that question, Pelosi turned and pointed to another reporter, who she recognized by saying: “Yes. Yes, ma’am.”

The goal of that exercise was to get bigger play out of the gotcha, and that's exactly what happened. Another media outlet noted the question, and Cruz bashed Pelosi for not answering the question, and CNS got an article out of that too.

(CNS has previously gotten clickbait mileage about of sending interns to ask gotcha questions of Pelosi.)

CNS even sent what passes for an actual reporter, Melanie Arter, to White House press secretary Jen Psaki's daily press briefing to ask the question, which got Psaki slapped with the "dodge" label for not playing along:

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday dodged the question of whether President Joe Biden believes a 15-week-old unborn baby is a human being.

Instead, Psaki said Monday that Biden supports a woman’s right to choose.

At the White House press briefing, asked Psaki: “Does the president believe a 15-week old unborn baby is a human being?”

“Are you asking me if the president supports a woman’s right to choose? He does,” Psaki replied.

This is the first time in recent memory that CNS has sent a reporter to a White House press briefing. The fact that it used that rare appearance to ask a politicized gotcha question says much about the state of journalism at CNS these days.

Round 3

Even more than the first two, CNS' third round of pestering members of Congress with questions is pure gotcha. The setup was the first question: "Do you believe that someone should have to show their ID in order to buy alcohol?" With the inevitable yes answer to that question came the follow-up: "And what about to vote?"

There's no equivalence between drinking restrictions and voting laws -- and CNS did not offer any -- but that wasn't the point. The reason for this line of questioning is partisan, of course, designed to attack the Democratic-promoted For the People Act, which according to CNS' boilerplate "proposes election reform by prohibiting states from requiring voters to show an ID at the polls. It would also require states to provide same-day voter registration and expand mail-in voting opportunities." Some articles cheered that Republicans "successfully filibustered" the bill.

Some articles noted other right-wing attacks on the law, and some interns gave members of Congress space to attack the proposed law. A few Republican congressmen were asked their opinions on colleagues declining to take the bait by saying "they support having an ID to buy alcohol but have refused to answer whether they support having an ID to vote."

So enamored was CNS by this question (and its pure-gotcha nature) that it was asked of 45 members of Congress -- 26 senators and and 19 House members -- meaning lots of work for its interns running between Capitol Hill and the MRC's offices in far suburban Washington, D.C. . The 45 articles on their answers were rolled out over more than two weeks.

CNS lashed out at one Democratic senator, Martin Heinrich, who refused to take the bait, complaining that he "did not respond and walked into an elevator."

Round 4

For its fourth round of gotcha questions to unsuspecting members of Congress, CNS interns asked them, "Should public schools and colleges be able to mandate that students be vaccinated for COVID-19?" This time, 20 senators were asked, with 12 of them being Republicans.

Of course, the point of this exercise is to give an opportunity for Republican senators to virtue-signal against mandates while excoriating Democrats who support local decisions and reliance on what the science shows.

Some of these articles added fearmongering about the vaccine: "Since April 21, 2021, over a thousand cases of myocarditis and pericarditis, heart inflammatory diseases, have been reported in young people after getting the COVID-19 vaccine, as is reported on the CDC’s website. However, the CDC is still encouraging children 12 and up to get the vaccine, claiming the benefits outweigh the risks."

Round 5

The fifth round of CNS' ambush questions to members of Congress was a follow-up to its previous question on COVID vaccines -- and an attempt to reinforce a new narrative by its parent, the Media Research Center.

The question du jour was "Should the Biden Administration work with Facebook to suppress postings it considers vaccine misinformation?" The idea that misinformation is not an objectively defined thing but what someone arbitrarily "considers" it to be is the MRC's current narrative to deflect responsibility from its fellow right-wingers for spreading misinformation because it wants to attack social media platforms for "censorship" for holding (mostly right-wing) people accountable for spreading it (yet when it accused the "liberal media"of spreading misinformation, it's never couched in such mitigating terms).

A follow-up question some senators got was "whether there are any other types of speech the administration should work with Facebook to suppress" -- another narrative-driven question that presumes a constitutional right to lie and mislead, that lying and misleading are "free speech," and that social platforms aren't private businesses that have no right to enforce terms of service on their users.

A total of 24 senators were queried this time, 14 of them Republicans. As a sign that the biased gotcha questions were getting tiresome, a couple of Democratic senators pushed back: Sen. Chris Coons called out the intern for the question's wording, refusing to go along with the premise that misinformation was being "suppressed," while Sen. Chris Van Hollen also called out the intern on the "suppress" wording.

Round 6

The sixth round of interns' ambush questions to members of Congress were perfect gotcha questions -- they called for a yes-or-no answer on a complex issue, one where a yes-or-no answer benefits Republican narratives, which is the entire point of this exercise. The subject this time was immigration with two questions:

  • “Should illegal aliens be given a pathway to citizenship?”
  • “And is our southwest border secure now?”

Thirteen senators got the question, seven of them Republicans. But one Democratic senator called the gotcha nature of the questions, and that didn't do down well with the intern:

Asked whether the U.S. southwest border is secure, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said, “We’re certainly making every effort to make sure that is it,” but refused to answer the question directly.

At the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, CNS News asked the senator, “Should illegal aliens be given a pathway to citizenship?”

Senator Peters said, “That’s part of comprehensive immigration reform. We’re gonna have to take a look at all that.”

In a follow-up question, CNS News asked, “And is our southwest border secure now?”

“Is it secure? We’re certainly making every effort to make sure that it is,” he said.

CNS News asked again, “And is it?”

Senator Peters said, “How do you define that? Yeah, I’m not going to play that game with you.”

But playing games is also part of this exercise as far as CNS is concerned -- to annoy Democrats by demanding yes-or-no answers on complex issues. For questioning the premise, Peters was given an unflattering stock photo illustrating his article as his reward.

Round 7

The next round of CNS' interns pestering members of Congress with gotcha questions designed to forward right-wing narratives focused on the infrastructure bill, asking them: "Will you read all 2,702 pages of the infrastructure bill before voting on it?" Some senators got this follow-up question: "And do you believe any of your colleagues will read all pages before voting?" But this approach may not have worked out for CNS narrative-wise as much as it would have liked.

The first victim was Republican Ted Cruz, who responded by ranting, "Nope, I’m going to vote no, and I don’t need to read 2,700 pages to know why I’m going to vote no."CNS may have thought that this showed Cruz as being opposed to more spending -- the intern framed it as Cruz having "expressed his concern over how the bills would affect the current and future state of the nation’s economy" -- but it instead showed him to be a kneejerk right-winger who has no interest in reaching common ground to help Americans and will oppose anything Democrats propose simply because Democrats proposed it.

As usual, there were numerous other senatorial targets -- 31 in all, 19 of whom were Republicans -- most of whom pointed out that they have staff members who read those bills.

The question is disingenuous because lengthy bills have always been a part of legislating on the federal level, members of Congress are busy enough that they can't possibly read every single piece of legislation that goes through Congress, and they have staffs to do the reading and related research that they don't have time to do. CNS knows all this -- but the narrative is more important than the truth, which is why the interns were sent out to badger senators with it.

Round 8

CNS' summer of interns pestering members of Congress with leading gotcha questions came to an end with a classic -- if by "classic" one means a deceptively simple question designed to let conservatives virtue-signal for answering "no" and make liberals look bad for answering "yes." The question: “The debt of the federal government is $28.4 trillion. Is that too much?” with some getting the follow-up: “Is there any federal program or agency that you would eliminate to reduce the federal spending?”

Perhaps reflective of the nature of the questions, CNS' list of victims this time is much more Republican-skewed this time around, with only three of the 16 senators queried being Democrats.

Most of the articles added conservative-friendly boilerplate that sounds like it was actually written by CNS editor Terry Jeffrey:

Over the last 39 years, the debt has ballooned, from $1.1 trillion to $28.4 trillion. The federal debt did not surpass $1 trillion until fiscal 1982. That fiscal year, according to the Treasury, the debt started at $997,855,000,000 and ended at $1,142,034,000,000.

In the 1994 Contract With America, conservative Republicans called for eliminating the Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of Education, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In the federal government, in addition to the legislative, judicial, and executive branches, there are 15 departments, such as Defense, HHS, Commerce, and Education. Also, there are approximately 453 agencies.

According to The Hill, “The federal government employs nearly 9.1 million workers, comprising nearly 6 percent of total employment in the United States. The figure includes nearly 2.1 million federal employees, 4.1 million contract employees, 1.2 million grant employees, 1.3 million active duty military personnel, and more than 500,000 postal service employees.”

Jeffrey, again, is a massive hypocrite on this issue, fulminating about deficit spending when it happens under Democrats but refusing to call out Republicans responsible for deficit spending on their watch.

So what have these interns actually learned this summer? Not much, really. They got resume-friendly clips of them interacting with famous (for D.C.) people, but it's not hard to yell a question at a politician when he or she is walking past you, or to pretend you're a reporter who's "just asking questions" when those questions are designed to be politically loaded and to advance one particular ideological point of view. In short: they may have learned some stuff, but much of it doesn't necessarily involve journalism?

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