Accuracy in Media

Last night’s presidential primary debate featured a public row between two primary candidates: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). A day before the debate, Warren accused Sanders of sexism and said that in a private meeting between the two senators, Sanders told her that he didn’t believe a woman could win in the 2020 presidential election.

Sanders confirmed that the private meeting did occur, but he denied Warren’s allegation that he made a sexist remark. Sanders said that he told Warren that President Donald Trump would use gender against a female candidate.

It did not appear that the media sought evidence (such as attendees of the private meeting) to confirm Warren’s or Sanders’s account of the private meeting, but the media was content with publishing the news of the public spat between the two candidates.

On the debate stage in Des Moines, Iowa, Warren and Sanders answered questions about the alleged sexist remarks. CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip asked Sanders the following question, “CNN reported yesterday that- and Senator Warren confirmed in a statement– that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman can win the election. Why did you say that?”

Sanders replied:

“Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it. Anybody who knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States. Go to YouTube today.  There’s some video of me 30 years ago talking about how a woman could become president of the United States.”

Phillip clarified Sanders’s reply, “Senator Sanders, I do want to be clear here. You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election,” to which Sanders said, “That is correct.” In a puzzling turn of events, Phillip then asked Warren, “[W]hat did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win an election?”

Phillip’s about-face on the sexism allegation was shocking, considering that she had confirmed Sanders’s defense that he did not make the sexist remarks. Phillip’s question to Warren lacked impartiality and assumed that Sanders did make the offensive remarks. There were multiple ways that Phillip could have asked the question, but she chose to word it in a way that implied Sanders was the guilty party.

The overall consensus about the controversy was that the media could not determine if Warren or Sanders lied about their private meeting and conversation. For Phillip to take a hard line on the allegation, which was during a nationally-televised debate, violated journalistic ethics and integrity. Her question made it appear that she was covering for Warren’s allegation, which allegation was not confirmed by other parties or witnesses in subsequent reports. It was an example of shoddy journalism and ethics, which was broadcasted to a national audience.

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