Christine O'Donnell was trying to make this simple point in a debate Tuesday with Democrat opponent Chris Coons, but CNN misconstrued it and angled its write-up of the debate on CNN.com to read that O'Donnell was clueless on the First Amendment.
If you compare the write-up to the CNN video, you can see how flagrant the article's misinterpretation of the debate is. The author chooses to quote from one of two identical phrases that are included in the video. O'Donnell asks once in the video, "You're telling me that the separation of church and state, the phrase "separation of church and state," is found in the First Amendment?" (Emphasis added.)
The article, however, includes her second quote as part of an exchange with Coons: "Let me just clarify: You're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?"
O'Donnell's point, if you listen to CNN's actual video, is pretty clear from her inflection -- she's challenging Coons on a common Constitutional misconception that he perpetuated: "separation of church and state" is explicitly named in the Constitution (it's not). As a journalist, you have two responsibilities: quote accurately, and make sure that, if there's something you've decided not to quote, you're still allowing whatever you do write to be framed by the context provided from the unquoted material. So a good journalist, writing this story, would have listened again to the transcript, heard her ask the same question which specifically asked about phrasing, and made sure O'Donnell's point was brought across in context.
Meanwhile, Coons could not name the five freedoms listed in the First Amendment. But CNN didn't lead with that -- in fact, the only place in the story that CNN decides to mention the fact is from a direct quote from O'Donnell's campaign manager. CNN also reports O'Donnell had to be reminded what the Fourteenth and Sixteenth Amendments were when a panelist's question asked her about them, but they fail to mention that the question also asked about the Seventeenth Amendment, which O'Donnell knew off the top of her head.
There's nothing like misrepresenting your opponent's position to expose your own ignorance, CNN. O'Donnell's biggest mistake was assuming the media would have the sense to realize she was asking a rhetorical question.
Watch CNN's video here: