In the Aftermath of Its Greatest Triumph, CNN Finds Mostly Criticism
The press releases coming from CNN yesterday were almost giddy: Wednesday's Republican CNN/YouTube debate imn St. Petersburg drew 4.49-million viewers, making it the most-watched primary presidential debate in history. Before that, CNN's Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas Nov. 15 was the most-watched primary debate in history, drawing 4-million viewers.
But all that success seemed beside the point Thursday, as the cable newschannel drowned in criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. See my story with Wes Allison in today's paper for the blow by blow.
Republican bloggers and pundits were criticizing CNN for allowing a spotlight moment for a gay retired general who turned out to have ties to both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The appearance by Keith Kerr, a well-known advocate for rescinding the ban against gays in the military, triggered a microscopic scrutiny of every questioner by right wing bloggers such as Michelle Malkin, Redstate.com and Newsbusters.org.
Liberals, on the other hand, criticized CNN for initially promising to insulate the Republican debate from questions posed by Democrats, though they made no such public promises to Democrats for their debate.
In response, CNN offered a defense that couldn't explain away two key problems: political director Sam Feist told me yesterday the cable channel focused on the questions, not the questioners, refusing to "provide a ideological litmus test" to everyone who submitted a question.
But if the background of the questioners doesn't matter, why did CNN debate chief David Bohrman apologize for using Kerr and say they wouldn't have aired his question had they knew of his Democratic political ties? And since they figured out the final 60 to 70 possible questions for air in the 24 hours before the debate, how could CNN have possibly vetted all those questioners for significant ties to Democratic campaigns?
Unfortunately, as much as CNN officials bragged about making a Republican debate for Republicans, with questions submitted by average people, their question selection process made it impossible to keep out hidden activists. But I doubt anyone would have noticed, if they hadn't handed a signature spotlight moment to a questioner who they hadn't vetted much at all.
And even though some liberal bloggers are saying the political background of questioners shouldn't matter, I have a hard time believing they would have tolerated seeing Hillary Clinton asked a tough question on an issue important to conservatives by someone with hidden ties to Rudolph Giuliani or George W. Bush.
It's an ironic turn, given that so much initial concern about the CNN/YouTube debates centered on whether the questions would be good enough. Turns out, we all should have been playing closer attention to who was asking the questions -- especially CNN.
See all the YouTube clips of the 34 questions asked Wednesday by clicking here.
Here's the three different statements CNN released Thursday:
"The whole point of these ground-breaking CNN/YouTube debates is to focus on substantive questions of concern to real people and to throw open the process to a wider range of Americans all around the country. CNN cared about what you asked, not who you were. This was the case for both the Democratic and the Republican CNN/YouTube debates.
"The issues raised during last night’s debate were legitimate and relevant no matter who was asking the questions. The vested interests who are challenging the credibility of the questioners are trying to distract voters from the substantive issues they care most about. Americans are tired of that discredited low-road approach, and throughout this election campaign CNN will stay focused on what the candidates are saying about the pressing issues facing this country at a critical time in our history. Judging by the fact that last night's event was the most-watched primary debate ever, it seems that the audience responded to our focus on plain-spoken questions about important issues."
“When choosing among the 5,000-or-so questions, CNN considered factors such as length, video quality and whether the question would help Republican primary voters select their presidential nominee. We sought a variety of questions on a variety of topics. We also sought to eliminate anyone with a direct role in a campaign and with one unfortunate exception, which we regret and have fully explained, we accomplished that.”—CNN political director Sam Feist
CNN Senior Vice President and Executive Producer of the debate, David Bohrman, says, "We regret this incident. CNN would not have used the General's question had we known that he was connected to any presidential candidate."
Prior to the debate, CNN had verified his military background and that he had not contributed any money to any presidential candidate.
Following the debate, Kerr told CNN that he's done no work for the Clinton campaign. He says he is a member of the Log Cabin Republicans and was representing no one other than himself.