Is CNN capable and professional enough to host presidential debates? After last week's CNN-YouTube debate fiasco, even Tim Rutten, a media writer for the left-leaning Los Angeles Times, was giving CNN a big fat F for failure: "In fact, this most recent debacle masquerading as a presidential debate raises serious questions about whether CNN is ethically or professionally suitable" to host debates. CNN had the opportunity to perform a journalistic swan dive. Instead, it produced an enormous belly flop. It's far worse when you realize this mess of a production was the highest-rated primary presidential debate in history.
Back in May, after the Democrats stiff-armed the Fox News Channel invitation to debate,many conservatives believed the Republicans should return the favor with CNN and its proposed CNN-YouTube debate. I disagreed. I suggested in this space that Republicans should accept debates on CNN but be more forceful in setting the terms and selecting the hosts. It seemed correct to assume at the time that CNN would attempt to be more fair and balanced simply because so much was riding on the outcome, namely CNN's very credibility as an impartial observer of the political process.
I was wrong. We can't expect CNN to be an honest broker.
Anchor Anderson Cooper began the debate by telling the viewers at home "all the questions tonight come from you." An ombudsman should have interrupted at that point, with a clarification along the lines of a Hertz commercial: "There's CNN, and there's not exactly." CNN wanted viewers to think the whole process emerged from the bottom up. Instead, it was CNN discarding 99.5 percent of entries at the top and deciding what finally would air. And as the debate unfolded, viewers discovered the depths of CNN's dishonesty about their alleged questions from the vox populi.
Standing up in the audience after being flown in by the debate organizers, retired general Keith Kerr threw a hardball question at the Republican contenders about the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy toward gays in the military. He listed his military credentials and proclaimed he was gay and then said, "I want to know why you think that American men and women in uniform are not professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians." After several candidate answers, Kerr interrupted and began lecturing the Republicans on how insensitive they are to gays in the military, as if he'd been granted a 30-second attack ad by CNN.
Within minutes, conservative bloggers and media critics discovered through simple Googling that Kerr was a Hillary Clinton supporter -- and not just a supporter but a man whose name was listed as part of the Clinton campaign's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Steering Committee.
How could CNN have missed this? CNN claims it had no idea. We are asked to place ourselves in a state of suspended disbelief here. No one, absolutely no one, at CNN knew of his identity? Shades of the Dan Rather Memogate story. CBS also claimed no one, absolutely no one, knew the memos to be false -- never mind that they had months to discover the truth that conservatives were able to unearth in minutes.
A simple Google search would have revealed this man's political identity. Even better, the Great Vetting Machine at CNN needed only to do a search of www.cnn.com -- he's been a guest on the network, actively promoting this agenda.
It's a lose-lose for CNN. If somehow we were to accept that no one, absolutely no one, at CNN knew this man's political identity, what does this say about the professionalism of CNN? To believe that CNN didn't know is to conclude that CNN is an incompetent news organization.
On CNN's Sunday show "Reliable Sources," CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman embarrassed the network even further. Bohrman admitted to host Howard Kurtz that CNN has its own version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." CNN never asked Kerr if he was affiliated with a candidate. "Here's why we stopped making sure that he was a real general and making sure that he hadn't contributed to a campaign. His question was great. All right?" Ask a "great question," and then CNN doesn't care if you're on someone's campaign stationery.
When former ABC reporter Linda Douglass suggested that from now on, every single person asking a debate question on national TV should be required to answer that question, Bohrman had the gall to disagree: "I'd love to agree, but I don't. Candidates meet all sorts of people, and there should not be the complete bio of everyone who asks a question."
Oddly, CNN wants to start a media-ethics debate, where critics demand full disclosure and CNN boldly advocates the cause of ignorance. To them, surprising Republicans with questions from unidentified Hillary backers and John Edwards fans is just a delightful evening of dirty tricks.