CNN had an opportunity to shine as co-host of last week’s Republican presidential debate. Instead, the network faltered with millions watching, leaving conservatives with yet another example of bias at the highest level of the media establishment. It was a sad case of liberal elites stereotyping conservatives as gun-toting, Bible-thumping, gay-bashing bigots.
As a supporter of the YouTube debate, I had high hopes for CNN in its role of selecting questions. The network had nearly 5,000 to choose from -- plenty to get a good representation of a variety of issues. Instead, we heard three questions about guns, a question attacking trade, another about the North American Union, a question about The Holy Bible and two each on abortion and homosexuality. By the time Anderson Cooper got around to introducing a question about the Confederate flag, it was time to click off the TV.
“Is this the Upper East Side view of the GOP?” quipped Politico’s Jonathan Martin.
What was missing? There wasn’t a single question about America’s energy policy, the environment, entrepreneurship or education. Despite this being the most tech-savvy debate in terms of format, there were no questions on net neutrality or telecom policy. Most alarming was the complete omission of the single biggest public policy debate taking place in Washington today: health care.
Given the recent battle over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and broader concerns about health care coverage, it was surprising no YouTube videos on the topic were picked. It’s not that YouTube users failed to submit them. It’s that CNN chose to ignore them.
To make matters worse, the day after the debate a CNN correspondent questioned why “the Republican presidential contenders seemed to all but ignore what is considered a major priority for many voters.” How is someone supposed to talk about an issue of national importance such as health care if they’re not asked a single question about it?
Three candidates -- Mike Huckabee, Mike Romney and John McCain -- found a way to work it in, but only in the context of other questions on unrelated topics. Their brief responses hardly gave them adequate time to compare and contrast policy proposals.
Instead, viewers of the most-watched debate of the primary season learned which candidates owned firearms, why Rudy Giuliani rooted for the Boston Red Sox in the World Series and whether libertarian Rep. Ron Paul would run as an independent. While those questions offered intriguing tidbits about the candidates, they also reinforced the sad state of politics and the obsession with the horse race.
In terms of public policy, there were intelligent questions on fiscal restraint, space exploration and illegal aliens. But even the debate over immigration policy quickly devolved when host Anderson Cooper failed to moderate a shouting match between Romney and Giuliani, who appeared to favor theatrics over concrete solutions.
What does this mean for the thousands of YouTube users who submitted questions and the more than 4 million people who tuned into CNN to watch? The new-media format of the debate certainly allowed for greater participation in the democratic process, but the old media got in the way of making it work effectively. The American people may have been the ones asking the questions, but the filter CNN used to vet them highlighted the network’s bias. Cooper didn’t do the network any favors when he gave one YouTube questioner -- a Hillary Clinton supporter who was in the audience -- a soapbox to lecture the candidates on gay marriage.
The Republican candidates who wanted to cut and run from this debate back in July deserve credit for reversing course and showing up. It’s just too bad it was a wasted opportunity, spoiled not by the people who took the time to submit questions but by the media elite who controlled the process.