December 1, 2007

Was It Corruption?

Plenty of accusations have flown against CNN since the YouTube debate on Wednesday, but Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten may have the most serious charge. The LA Times' media critic levels charges of corruption against the network, claiming that its emphasis on illegal immigration as a lead topic -- and the large percentage of the debate's time it took -- intended on bolstering its Lou Dobbs show against tough competition (via Hugh Hewitt):

Corruption is a strong word. But consider these facts: The gimmick behind Wednesday's debate was that the questions would be selected from those that ordinary Americans submitted to the video sharing Internet website YouTube, which is owned by Google. According to CNN, its staff culled through 5,000 submissions to select the handful that were put to the candidates. That process essentially puts the lie to the vox populi aura the association with YouTube was meant to create. When producers exercise that level of selectivity, the questions -- whoever initially formulated and recorded them -- actually are theirs.

That's where things begin to get troubling, because CNN chose to devote the first 35 minutes of this critical debate to a single issue -- immigration. Now, if that leaves you scratching your head, it's probably because you're included in the 96% of Americans who do not think immigration is the most important issue confronting this country. We've got a pretty good fix concerning what's on the American mind right now, because the nonpartisan and highly reliable Pew Center has been regularly polling people since January on the issues that matter most to them. In fact, the center's most recent survey was conducted in the days leading up to Wednesday's debate. ...

So, why did CNN make immigration the keystone of this debate? What standard dictated the decision to give that much time to an issue so remote from the majority of voters' concerns? The answer is that CNN's most popular news-oriented personality, Lou Dobbs, has made opposition to illegal immigration and free trade the centerpiece of his neonativist/neopopulist platform. In fact, Dobbs led into Wednesday's debate with a good solid dose of immigrant bashing. His network is in a desperate ratings battle with Fox News and, in a critical prime-time slot, with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. So, what's good for Dobbs is good for CNN.

In other words, CNN intentionally directed the Republicans' debate to advance its own interests. Make immigration a bigger issue and you've made a bigger audience for Dobbs.

That's corruption, and it's why the Republican candidates had to spend more than half an hour "debating" an issue on which their differences are essentially marginal -- and, more important, why GOP voters had to sit and wait, mostly in vain, for the issues that really concern them to be discussed. That's particularly true because that same Pew poll reported findings of particular relevance to Republican voters, the vast majority of whom continue to support the war in Iraq.

I recall watching Lou Dobbs for a few minutes before the debate started, and he had been talking up illegal immigration. Oddly, he was also talking populism and wondering whether any of the GOP candidates would adopt a populist stance -- as if the GOP had a long history of populism in presidential campaigns. "I hope so, but I doubt it," was the last we heard from Dobbs.

What makes this such an unusual article is its source. Rutten hardly qualifies as a conservative firebrand out to destroy the mainstream media. He's a liberal, and occasionally tangles with Hugh Hewitt when Hugh covers media controversies. His take is the first one I've read that calls CNN corrupt in this specific sense. (Many have called them politically corrupt, but not in a financial sense.)

I think Rutten overreaches here, however. It's true that Dobbs likes to harangue on illegal immigration, but then again, it has been a big issue for the Republicans the last three years, too. He notes that 35 minutes of the debate went to this issue in a two-hour show, but a good part of that came from an extended one-on-one between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. Since the questions and their order had already been selected, Anderson Cooper couldn't have predicted that kind of time allocation. In reading the transcript, that topic comprised only 4 of 33 questions, or slightly over 10%. The responses took an inordinate amount of time, thanks to the candidates' bantering.

The next question was about the North American Union conspiracy theory, followed by five questions on fiscal policy -- taxes and spending. Later in the broadcast, CNN returned to spending questions, two of them in the final minutes of the debate. Illegal immigration questions didn't dominate the debate -- if any topic did, it was taxes and spending, as Republicans probably had hoped. If CNN wanted to plug Dobbs, they would have had to foresee the brawl that the questions provoked. They didn't load up on illegal immigration, although they could have taken more questions on the war (three, by my count).

Corruption? Rutten doesn't make the case. As my partner Mitch said today on our NARN broadcast, don't blame conspiracies for what can be explained by incompetence.

UPDATE: Changed "immigration" to "illegal immigration" for clarity. Sometimes shorthands work, sometimes they don't.


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