There is a controversy brewing over the comments of CNN contributor Hilary Rosen during a heated exchange with Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner. Rosen’s comments have been denounced as racist and her initial apology triggered even more intense criticism. What is most interesting however is what this controversy says about the role of contributors. Rosen has a long history of supporting Democratic establishment figures from the Clintons to Joe Biden. In today’s formulaic media roles, she is viewed as such a de facto voice for Biden that Sen. Bernie Sanders has demanded that Biden apologize for her comments. It is a dispute that directs a bright light on the usually murky roles played by “contributors” on the cable programs as campaign surrogates. The exchange also had some troubling issues when Turner objected to Rosen’s contrary interpretation of a Martin Luther King “as a white woman.” As discussed below, Turner was right on the meaning of the quote. So the problem was not that Rosen was white. It was that she was wrong.
Turner and Rosen crossed swords on Thursday night on “Cuomo Prime Time” after Turner invoked Martin Luther King Jr. Rosen objected to the reference, suggested that Turner got the quote wrong, and then said that Turner “did not have the standing” to invoke King in this way. Later Rosen apologized after widespread criticism but seemed to refer to Turner in the apology as an “angry black woman.”
Here is the original exchange:
“That is not what I said. Don’t you do that,” Rosen said.
HILARY ROSEN, BIDEN CAMPAIGN SURROGATE: You know, Nina referenced Dr. Martin Luther King [Jr.] before saying he said from the Birmingham jail that we should be concerned about white moderates. That’s actually not what Martin Luther King said. What he said —
NINA TURNER, SANDERS CAMPAIGN SURROGATE: He did say that.
ROSEN: He said we should be worried about the silence of white moderates.
TURNER: Don’t tell me about Martin Luther King Jr. Are you kidding me?
ROSEN: Nina —
CUOMO: She’s making a language point, Nina.
ROSEN: What he said was we should be worrying about the silence of white moderates. And what we have in Joe Biden is a man that’s not silent. He has a long record and many, many votes that in today’s world feel like the wrong thing, were the wrong thing and he has discussed that over and over again as Bernie Sanders did on the gun votes and other things. So we can be talking about votes from 20 years ago or we can be talking about people’s values and who they trust. And that’s what Joe Biden is going to be talking about.
CUOMO: Last quick point to you, Nina.
TURNER: What Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about, he said it is the point that the white moderate wants things to be comfortable instead of focusing in on the bigger threat is not necessarily the white KKK member but more the white moderate that is more comfortable with keeping things the same while pretending like there is no tension than to deal —
ROSEN: Don’t use Martin Luther King against Joe Biden. You don’t have that —
TURNER: First of all —
ROSEN: You don’t have that standing. I’m sorry. You don’t.
TURNER: Don’t tell me what kind of standing I have as a black woman in America. How dare you?
ROSEN: You have a lot of standing as a black woman in America.
TURNER: First of all, you’re dipping into something you don’t understand. You need to — I did not demean you —
ROSEN: You don’t have the standing to attack Joe Biden using Martin Luther King’s words.
TURNER: I didn’t attack anybody. You’re taking it that way.
Listen, don’t dip into what I have to say about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. How dare you as a white woman try to tell me —
ROSEN: That is not what I said. Don’t you do that.
TURNER: — trying to tell me what I’m supposed to feel and what I’m doing what now.
CUOMO: Nina, Hillary, I’m out of time on this one —
TURNER: Chris, I didn’t jump in on her, though and she wants to jump in on me.
CUOMO: You guys are in the same party. This is what you guys have to figure out. You’re in the same party. And let me tell you, you better keep that same energy when you are up against Trump that you have against each other because he is bigger and badder than I think you guys are ready for.
Cuomo has been criticized for not taking a stronger stance against Rosen. I am not sure that that is his function. Ironically, I am more concerned with what he said at the end where he seemed to chastise the two commentators for not focusing on defeating Trump as “the bigger and badder” threat. It is another example of the open advocacy that seems to have become the norm at CNN. I fail to see why it is the function of a CNN host to mediate disagreements between rivaling Democratic candidates to better campaign against Trump.
Moreover, while I think (as I explain below) that Rosen was wrong on the quote, I do not agree with Turner that “as a white woman,” Rosen is somehow not allowed to disagree with Turner on a quote of Martin Luther King.
Rosen however deepened the controversy with her apology:
“On air thurs I said my colleague @ninaturner didn’t have a standing to use MLK Jr. That was wrong. I am sorry for saying those words. [Please] no need to defend me and attack angry black women. They have standing. I always need to listen more than I talk. We rise together.”
The “angry black women” reference set off a firestorm and Rosen deleted her apology and issued a new one:
“I’m horrified that anyone would think i would call Nina Turner ‘an angry black woman’ I would NEVER!! After the TV hit last night, I was getting tons of ugly messages to keep fighting her using that phrase. I was trying to tell people to STOP. Cause I KNEW I needed to apologize. I unequivocally know I disrespected her and I wanted to make it right by telling disgusting white folks to stop. Wow did that tweet go wrong. I am so sorry.”
Now Sanders has demanded a Biden apology for Rosen’s comments:
“@JoeBiden must accept responsibility for his surrogate telling our campaign co-chair Senator @NinaTurner that she doesn’t have standing to invoke the words of Dr. King. That is unacceptable and Joe must apologize to Nina and all the people of color supporting our campaign.”
Rosen has had a history of controversial statements. In 2012, Rosen inexplicably attacked Ann Romney, the wife of then presidential candidate Mitt Romney, as a stay-at-home mother. Rosen said that a stay-at-home mother she “never worked a day in her life.” Rosen’s comments were denounced by the Obamas and she apologized.
Then in 2017, as we discussed in a blog post, Rosen attacked Georgetown Hoyas fans as “anti-Semitic,” and specifically attacked one fan as “bigot” after she saw a photograph of him wearing a bacon costume. The Georgetown student, Michael Bakan, was well-known for the costume that was a pun on his name which is pronounced “bacon.” Rosen again apologized.
For full disclosure, I previously had an odd exchange with Rosen on the air with NPR where she suddenly objected to a discussion over gay rights as a lesbian without explaining what was offensive. The host and I were simply discussing the change of Hillary Clinton on gay rights issues like same-sex marriage. I never did learn what was the cause of Rosen’s exclamation “Because I’m a lesbian and how dare you” but it now seems similar to aspects of this exchange.
Sander’s demand for an apology from Biden is fascinating in this new media environment where commentators are selected to give predictably one view in crossfire formats. Sanders is right that many contributors are effectively working for or directed by campaigns. However, his demand for an apology highlights these connections and pierces the artificial neutrality of so many political commentators.
The dispute by the way over the MLK statement stems from his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” I think that Rosen was wrong and Turner was right on what King said about moderates. It was not about their “silence” alone when he wrote:
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
His point seems to be that moderate whites are more devoted to the status quo and fearful of many reforms. Accordingly, I think Turner has the more accurate interpretation of the passage. It also would seems as apropos to her point a\in the exchange with Rosen.