Every four years, journalists present themselves as objective questioners in presidential debates only to be roundly, and correctly, denounced by conservatives for being anything but. When, oh when, we ask, will America be able to enjoy a candidate forum free from liberal reporters inserting their slanted worldviews into the discussion? When, oh when, we ask ourselves, will they get out of the way?
It looks like we should be very careful what we ask for.
On Tuesday night, CNN did this -- or at least said it was doing this. The network teamed up with the video site YouTube to host a debate of the Democratic contenders and pretenders in South Carolina. This time, the primary questioners were amateur video-makers who submitted their questions to YouTube, competing for CNN airtime like a political version of "American Idol." CNN puffed itself up as "groundbreaking" for this effort, suggesting it was offering "real questions from real people."
The questioners CNN presented may have given the debate a different flavor, but what the consumer was really left with was the aftertaste of too much soda bubbles and syrup. It was a dumbed-down debate, with center stage dedicated to bouts of silliness, shameless attention-seeking and emotionally manipulative questions.
Rather than an objective discussion about gay "rights," there was the question from two lesbians wondering why they couldn't get married. Rather than a factual question about Iraq, there was the angry plea from the grieving father of a fallen soldier that we withdraw before he lost another son. This kind of "moderation" might be enjoyable to view as an alternative to the norm -- like watching the heart-wrenching or embarrassing tryouts of "Idol" wannabes -- but it wasn't exactly the highfaluting rebirth of Athens.
These interviewers wanted to be taken seriously, but many were just buffoons who made fools of the network that likes to bill itself as "the most trusted name in news." CNN selected hammy Tennessee hillbillies looking like "Hee Haw" rejects and a cartoon snowman speaking in a falsetto voice about global warming as presidential candidate questioners, along with several lame musical interludes where the inquirers displayed their questions on crudely written cue cards.
Is this really the state of affairs in our democratic experiment, circa 2007? If so, God help us all.
There was a more serious concern for the public watching this CNN spectacle. Every time "objective" networks claim to seek the voice of the American people, they seem to think that 75 percent or 80 percent of Americans are squarely on the political left of the spectrum, people who think Dennis Kucinich is in the mainstream. Questions from the left dominated the CNN proceedings, lamenting the Democrats' slowness on Iraq withdrawal, honoring "gay marriage" and scrapping everything George W. Bush ever proposed.
Some questions consisted of tired, and thoroughly false, liberal attack lines that would warm a Democrat's heart, as in asking how race and class skewed the response to Hurricane Katrina, with the insulting assumption that President Bush said: "Oh, it's just black people. Take your time responding." Predictably, this insulting question drew an equally truth-challenged response from Sen. Chris Dodd: "The American president had almost no response whatsoever to the people of that city, New Orleans." Where were the CNN fact-checkers? Bush signed a $51 billion aid package within 10 days.
Some might say we shouldn't be shocked by these loaded inquiries because it was, after all, a debate among and for partisan Democrats. But if so, CNN shouldn't pretend this to be the collective voice of America. It simply can't have it both ways. But CNN never admitted that slant. CNN might claim that there's a left-wing tilt in the number of submissions that they received because of the partisan interest. But that's no excuse for CNN to skew the proceedings so dramatically and leave the impression that "the people" out there think Ted Kennedy's way too conservative.
CNN tipped viewers off to its ideological direction when it continuously praised all the "passionate" and "thoughtful" submissions in preview segments leading up to the debate. When CNN aired environmental questions, they came from parents holding children panicking about the global-warming menace. When it aired health-care questions, the questioners wanted to know why government subsidies are so inadequate. When it aired "faith" questions, they were from people scandalized by too much old-time religion in our politics.
The Republicans will also subject themselves to the CNN-YouTube bubble machine on a Monday night in September. They will be foolish to expect a similar treatment. It's rare for the liberal TV news networks to conduct a town-hall presidential debate that even splits the questions down the middle ideologically. Charlie Gibson did it in the second Bush-Kerry debate in 2004. Now that debate, with its simple one-for-you and one-for-you, seemed strangely groundbreaking.