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Opinion CNN’s Abby Phillip to Bernie Sanders: We don’t believe you

CNN White House correspondent Abby Phillip arrives onstage to moderate the seventh Democratic primary debate. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

What did CNN’s Abby Phillip do on Tuesday night? According to Twitter, something awful:

At Tuesday night’s Democratic debate at Drake University in Iowa, Phillip asked one of the debate’s hot-griddle questions, which arose from a CNN report earlier in the week. At issue is a spat between candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — who occupy similar space in lefty politics — over what was said in a private meeting between the two at Warren’s apartment in December 2018.

Here’s how Phillip laid out the matter, first to Sanders and then to Warren: “Let’s now turn to an issue that’s come up in the last 48 hours. Sen. Sanders, CNN reported yesterday that — and ... Sen. Warren confirmed in a statement — that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?”

At which point, Sanders denied saying that: “Well, as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it. And I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want. Anybody knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States,” said Sanders, who went on to state more evidence that he doesn’t hold such a conviction.

Once Sanders completed his self-defense, Phillip came back at him:

PHILLIP: So Sen. Sanders — Sen. Sanders, I do want to be clear here, you’re saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?
SANDERS: That is correct.

With that “clear” denial in hand, Phillip turned her focus to the other attendee at that December 2018 get-together: “Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”

“I disagreed,” responded Warren.

Tom Jones of the Poynter Report attacked: “It was a stunning moment. Stunning in its ineptness, and stunning in its unprofessionalism.”

Or perhaps not. There’s nothing stunning, after all, about a CNN debate moderator staying true to the reporting of a CNN political reporter. MJ Lee, a veteran political correspondent, broke the story and based her description on “the accounts of four people: two people Warren spoke with directly soon after the encounter, and two people familiar with the meeting.”

Ratings may soar when cable TV networks compete to host primary season debates, but that's bad for objective journalism, argues media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post)

On that basis, the story alleges that Sanders indeed stated that “he did not believe a woman could win.” The headline: “Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren in private 2018 meeting that a woman can’t win, sources say.” In fairness to Sanders, the piece airs his forceful denial, including the part in which he says, “staff who weren’t in the room are lying about what happened.” He also cited what he did say in that meeting, which was that “Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could.”

Including Sanders’s denial, however, is something different from crediting it. Which is to say, CNN didn’t headline the piece with wishy-washy language such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren provide competing accounts of private meeting. It’s the considered judgment of Lee and her editors, in other words, that Sanders made this statement.

Over at the Intercept, Ryan Grim, Aída Chávez and Akela Lacy argue that CNN “brought out the bat and swung it hard at Sen. Bernie Sanders." They criticized the wording of the question to Sanders, which included the point about Warren confirming the story:

The moderator’s use of Warren to confirm a version of the story that originally came from Warren’s account of the meeting at the time signaled which side CNN was taking in the “he said, she said,” but it was confirmed by the framing of the question — “Why did you say that?” — rather than asking whether he said it.

Fair enough. It’s always dicey to report on a meeting attended by only two people, unless, of course, a helpful audio or video files surfaces on the Internet. Did CNN report with excessive certainty an exchange that may well have been squishy and fluid? Perhaps. As The Post’s Ruth Marcus notes, the dueling versions of the meeting aren’t actually dueling; instead, they’re separated by “only a few shades of nuance" — the difference between calling out sexism and submitting to it.

Yet Phillip’s detractors should consider that what she did on Tuesday night wasn’t so much alien to journalism as central to it. Every single day reporters weigh evidence from opposing camps and reach tough decisions on what to put in the headline. Sometimes that headline steamrolls a denial from a government official, a scenario that sums up much of the day-to-day reporting on President Trump.

Read more:

Ruth Marcus: Sanders vs. Warren shows the difference between identifying sexism and giving in to it

Jennifer Rubin: The debate might get a bit awkward for Sanders and Warren

Henry Olsen: Elizabeth Warren might regret her feud with Bernie Sanders

Paul Waldman: Here’s what really matters about the Warren-Sanders feud