Supporters of gun rights are criticizing CNN over a "town hall" it held on gun control. By hosting it, CNN gave these conservatives a choice: Either stay away from the forum, and be attacked as a coward, or go, and be called a "murderer" to the applause of the crowd. Florida Governor Rick Scott chose the first option, National Rifle Association spokesman Dana Loesch the second.
On its own, the town hall might be defensible. But it has to be seen in the context of the rest of CNN's coverage. Since the Parkland massacre, the network has been in the advocacy business.
Watch the network, read its website or scroll through its Twitter feed, and the overall message will come through loud and clear: Assault weapons should be banned, Republicans should be put on the spot for their votes to the contrary, and anyone who disagrees is on the take from the National Rifle Association.
When the Florida House decided not to consider an assault-weapons ban, the CNN Twitter account ran a roll call of the Republicans who voted it down along with their NRA ratings. It ran no roll call of Democrats who voted to advance the bill, which would have been just as informative. Only a naif would miss the implicit message: These people belong in a hall of shame.
The website has featured one pro-gun-control story after another. A sample headline: "Some of the most powerful quotes from the #NeverAgain rallies." ("To every lawmaker out there: No longer can you take money from the NRA.")
On air, anchor Brooke Baldwin harangued a Republican state representative from Florida: "The status quo is unacceptable. Why not at least give it a shot and â€¦ at least consider the ban." Mediaite, a website about the media, called it an "intense debate." It was supposed to be an interview.
CNN is taking a different approach to politicians who favor gun control. On Thursday morning, Florida Representative Ted Deutch, a Democrat, got no challenging questions.
Alisyn Camerota asked two survivors of the Parkland shootings now calling for gun regulation if they knew they were up against the money of the NRA. (They did.) Fair enough except that no CNN anchor is going to mention Planned Parenthood's political contributions in a segment about late-term abortion. And Camerota didn't mention the millions of voters for whom the NRA speaks, voters from whom it gets that money in the first place.
Anchors also promoted gun control on their own Twitter feeds. Chris Cuomo retweeted a fake story about a 20-year-old who had allegedly bought an AR-15 in five minutes, and then angrily defended himself from critics when the account was exposed as untrue. When President Donald Trump brought up the idea of arming teachers as a defense against school shootings, Brian Stelter responded, "Music to the gun lobby's ears?" He could have said, "This will please gun-rights supporters." But he has never tweeted the phrase "gun rights." He has never tweeted about the "gun-control lobby" either. He uses hostile terminology for one side of this debate.
The point isn't that CNN's point of view is crazy or extreme, or even wrong. Maybe CNN is right that assault weapons should be banned and the NRA taken on. Maybe it is right that Republicans ought to change their position on gun issues. A lot of intelligent and reasonable people think all of these things.
But CNN presents itself as an institution that reports the news straight. That's the point of its "This is an apple" ad campaign. The idea is that in an atmosphere of pervasive distrust and no shared agreement about what's true, it's more important than ever to trust reliable and neutral sources of information. The network is not marketing itself as an explicitly progressive media outlet, the way Mother Jones and the Nation do. It's not even an all-but-explicitly partisan outlet like Fox, which dropped its "fair and balanced" slogan last year.
Since the Parkland killings, CNN's coverage has been an effective refutation of the network ads that promise unbiased reporting. If it wonders why so many Americans don't trust news organizations any more, here's an answer: They know that many media institutions are on one side of many political issues, and won't cop to it.
Reporting on political debates in a neutral manner when you have strong views on them is psychologically challenging. CNN's apparent solution is not to try. This is not an apple.