The St. Petersburg Times, the "hometown newspaper" for the CNN-YouTube Republican debate, published an interesting story on CNN’s reactions to conservative criticism. Their list of excuses was extensive, and ridiculous. As far as conservatives are concerned, CNN has two choices: either they were extremely cynical in knowingly placing Democratic supporters into a Republican debate, or they were extremely unprofessional in failing to do five minutes of work to prevent the publicity fiasco of allowing Hillary supporters to try and embarrass her opponents on national TV.
CNN is responding by attacking their critics (Michelle Malkin by name) for being stalking horses for Fox News. In their report, Wes Alison and Eric Deggans asked if there wasn’t enough time for vetting (when they’ve been receiving questions for three months?):
And did CNN's method for choosing questions, in which the 60 to 70 available queries were finalized in the 24 hours before the debate, make it impossible for the channel to fully vet any questioners for ties to Democratic campaigns?
CNN's political director Sam Feist said the channel didn't really investigate the political leanings of any questioners, focusing more on the questions they asked.
Feist is offering a bogus defense. Imagine the difference between an average Joe asking Hillary about firing Billy Dale from the White House Travel Office and then subjecting him to a long trial process in which he was acquitted in two hours. Then ask if the question would have more impact if the questioner were Billy Dale. That's why the gay general's question had more impact than if it was asked by Sally in Tampa.
The obvious rebuttal to this is: you narrowed the field down to 33 questions, and you allowed just a few of the questioners to ask press the contenders from the audience for more dramatic impact. Couldn’t you just screen the questioners who appeared live in the audience? But Feist was trying to say it wasn’t CNN’s fault there was a Hillary plant in Gen. Keith Kerr, and they didn’t even pay the man’s way:
Kerr told CNN that he had not thought to tell the network about allowing his name to be included on Clinton's steering committees and that he was speaking for himself. Clinton's campaign also denied any involvement with the incident. The retired general was among several questioners invited to the debate by Google; their transportation and lodging was not paid for by CNN, Feist said.
"We didn't have an ideological litmus test for people," Feist said, noting that one prominent CNN critic, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, also works as a contributor for rival Fox News Channel. "I'm comfortable with the questions, and I'm comfortable with the process."
So not only does Feist think he doesn’t need to do "ideological litmus tests" for questioners, then he turns around and accuses his critics of being stalking horses for Fox News. Is this the way for CNN to build rapport with potential Republican viewers? Is this the way CNN builds a reputation for professionalism and fairness and receptiveness to public complaints? Feist’s answers are an embarrassment to CNN.
Reporters ought to remember the words that Anderson Cooper began the debate with, words that try to create the illusion that "the people" are picking the questions, when actually, CNN is picking needles out of a haystack, in some cases needles that look like they hope to embarrass Republicans, like the gay Hillary-supporting general.
Over the next two hours, the eight Republican candidates for president will be questioned here on this stage by you, Americans who submitted video questions to us through the Web site YouTube. Now, all the questions tonight come from you.
That gives the viewers at home a strong impression that these people are the authentic American grass roots, not Astroturf activists with cynical agendas. (Remember how CNN and others suggested that opposition to Hillary's health plan in 1993 and 1994 was more "Astroturf" than grass roots? It's time to turn the spotlight around on CNN's Astroturfing techniques.)
Before the debate, Deggans interviewed Anderson Cooper, and Cooper played up the myth that the viewers are making all the decisions of what gets asked:
Q: How is this debate going to be different than the Democratic debate, based on what you learned from the first time around?
A: I think we're going to have a lot more questions to choose from. We had some 3,000 at the final count last time. I think we're already at the 3,000 mark, and we saw a flood of questions coming in the last couple of days last time. So I wouldn't be surprised if we got above 5,000 this time, which is fantastic. It's sort of a bottom-up process. We let the questions and the general tone and the quantity of questions on any given subject sort of determine how much time we spent on any given subject. So it really does come from the viewers. They are the ones deciding which topics get the most focus.
The newspapers bought that spin line. (See the Houston Chronicle's headline: "Viewers Deciding GOP Debate Tactics.") In fact, the more questions CNN receives from the public, the more people they are excluding, and the more editorial control they are exercising.
Skepticism should apply to Cooper's assertion. Was there a question to Republicans if they accepted literally every word in the Bible because 600 people wanted that asked? Or did CNN pluck that out because it was interesting? Were there 600 people who wanted to ask Rudy Giuliani about New York City paying for the security outside his mistress's house? They made decisions that were not based on the viewers at home. They were making their own decisions about what would spice things up -- and maybe give Republicans some indigestion.