November 30, 2007

Did The Dem YouTube Debate Have Republican 'Plants'?

The Los Angeles Times decided to take a look into whether CNN changed its vetting procedures between the Democratic and Republican YouTube debates. James Rainey found that CNN also allowed two questions from Republicans supporters to enter the Democratic debate in July, but doesn't present any evidence that actual campaign figures got flown to the auditorium:

A review by the Los Angeles Times of the debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube four months ago found that the Democratic presidential candidates also faced queries that seemed to come from the conservative perspective. At least two of the citizen-interrogators had clear GOP leanings. ...

During that session, one video questioner asked the candidates to choose between raising taxes or cutting benefits in order to save Social Security. Another demanded to know whether taxes would rise "like usually they do when a Democrat comes in office." A third featured a gun-toting Michigan man, who in an interview Thursday said he had voted twice for President Bush, who wanted to know if the Democrats would protect his "baby" -- an assault rifle he cradled in his arms.

Another questioner from that forum who seemed to have clear conservative credentials was John McAlpin, a sailor who asked Clinton: "How do you think you would be taken seriously" by Arab and Muslim nations that treat women as "second-class citizens"?

McAlpin's MySpace page features pictures of Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Republican presidential candidate.

It depicts Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly as a friend, while offering a caricature of a bearded, turban-wearing "Borat Hussein Obama" -- a derogatory reference to Obama, the Democratic candidate who as a youth attended a Muslim school.

The format leaves limited ability to weed out partisans. The main complaint that followed from the first debate was the inordinate amount of silliness that CNN and YouTube allowed in the Democratic debate. That included the questioner who called his rifle his "baby", and those complaints came not from the Democrats but the Republicans, who wanted to avoid all of the nonsense.

CNN's main failure, and the only real "plant", was General Keith Kerr. They didn't just allow his question, they flew him to the debate, and then allowed him almost as much screen time as Duncan Hunter to make a speech. Kerr serves on Hillary Clinton's steering committee on GLBT issues, a fact that he apparently failed to disclose to CNN, who didn't bother to use Google and spend ten minutes vetting him. That failure to disclose on Kerr's part certainly shows an intent to deceive, and renders his and Hillary's insistence that they had no intent to plant questions laughable.

The other questioners had ulterior motives in asking their questions, and CNN may have had some in selecting them, even if it was just to spark some controversial statements from the candidates. Just as in the Democratic debate, though, the questions themselves weren't outrageous and certainly can be expected from the campaign trail, especially in the general election. In this loose format, questions can come from anyone -- just like a real town-hall forum -- and candidates should be prepared to answer them. Either all presidential candidates have to prepare for a wide range of questions, or we should junk the format altogether and go back to journalists writing the questions.

In fact, given that CNN decided which 33 YouTubed questions it wanted to present, they effectively did that anyway. They just outsourced the scut work to YouTubers. In the future, CNN and YouTube may want to consider my original proposal to collaborate with bloggers in the selection process. At least we know that bloggers can use Google properly.


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