CNN’s Republican YouTube Debate Causes Controversy

Dec 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

CNN’s Republican YouTube debate last Wednesday was watched by an estimated 4.4 million viewers, more than any primary debate in cable news history, according to Turner analysis of fast national data from Nielsen Media Research.
Add in a simulcast on CNN Headline News, and the debate averaged nearly 5 million viewers, CNN said.
Even bigger than the TV audience was the uproar among partisan bloggers and kibitzers on other cable news networks over the origins of some of the questions, most notably the questions for the Republican candidates about the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy for gays in the U.S. military. In a YouTube video, retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr, who is openly gay, asked the candidates’ views about gays in the military. One of several YouTubers invited to be in the audience in St. Petersburg, Fla., for the possible chance to ask questions in person, he turned out to have been a member of the gay and lesbian steering committee for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He later explained that he was not a Clinton supporter but rather a Log Cabin Republican.
A day after the debate, TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi spoke with CNN Senior VP David Bohrman about the uproar.
TelevisionWeek: There were a number of day-after complaints about the debate, many of them clearly and blatantly partisan. If there were any corrections, clarifications, amplifications or apologies to be issued by CNN, what would they be for?
David Bohrman: Most of the complaints that are erupting around the blogs are completely artificial. The debate last night was such a success, and so good and so interesting, because the questions were so good and so appropriate to Republican voters trying to make a decision about which one of these eight men to support. It was a very Republican debate, which was what we set out to do and which I think we succeeded in doing.
I wish I had known the general had a connection to a political candidate. I regret the fact that we didn’t know it. Had we known it, we would have had a whole other round of discussions about his question, and my guess is we would not have run it. We would have used one of the other really good gay questions.
The reality was there’s really interesting nuances in the Republican party on the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy—[imagine] having Mitt Romney on the record saying ‘I dream of the day when they can serve openly.’ There seemed no better way than having a general—a real, legitimate general who is now openly gay—ask that question.
When we saw that question, we were immediately struck by it. The first thing we did was make sure he was for real. We checked, went online. He was in fact for real, a real general, real service, really openly gay now. We checked the [Federal Election Commission] contribution records, because that’s where you tell usually if someone is connected to a campaign. He has no record of contributions. So here we have this spectacular question from a general on gays in the military and he is for real. That’s the vetting we did.
The general was part of about a group of a dozen YouTubers who were invited. They knew there was a chance their questions might be asked. Nobody at YouTube knew whether those questions were actually going to be asked or not, so no other Q&A with the general happened because I wasn’t going to let anybody know what questions we were going to use.
If you look back at the debate, the provenance of these questions by and large, if you look at the questions, doesn’t matter. Look at the question of the guy who held up the Bible: “Do you believe every word in this book?” Do you need to know where this person is coming from? It doesn’t matter if he’s a supporter of anybody. It is a great, great question. The black man and his son: “What are you going to do about black-on-black violence?” It matters not at all if there’s any political connection this guy has or his son has, because at its heart it is a great question that very rarely gets asked in a debate, especially a Republican debate.
The questions were great and the questions drive the debate. If people are going to try to focus on the origin of the people or the questions, they’re completely missing the point that America seemed to get last night. These were great questions and helped them make up their minds. This is the most-watched primary debate ever. I think it was a very large event in the Republican nominating process.
TVWeek: You’re saying if you knew the general’s connection to Ms. Clinton, you probably wouldn’t have used the question. Why couldn’t you have used the question and stated the connection?
Mr. Bohrman: We would have had a conversation. We probably would have said, “You know what? There’s going to be so much blowback because he’s connected to Hillary, let’s use one of the other questions that will get us there.” You weigh the choices. It would have been nice to know.
TVWeek: Michelle Malkin, the conservative blogger, wrote: “Digging out more CNN/YouTube plants: Abortion questioner is declared Edwards supporter (and a slobbering Anderson Cooper fan); Log Cabin Republican questioner is declared Obama supporter; lead toy questioner is a prominent union activist for the Edwards-endorsing United Steelworkers …”
Mr. Bohrman: What a way to hide behind a false issue. The answers to the questions were what is important. The questions were great. There’s no reason to hide behind the provenance of the questions. You can make a mountain out of anything and this seems to be a total diversion.
TVWeek: Did any of the candidates or representatives of the candidates have any issues of the sort that the bloggers are raising?
Mr. Bohrman: No, the campaigns by and large were exceedingly happy last night. I think the candidates did a great job. Most of them did a really good job. Some of them hit home runs, a few had some missed opportunities. I think it was good for them. I think it was good for the voters who were trying to make up their minds. After two or three days of the blogs firing up people’s passions, might one of the campaigns start to criticize the event? Perhaps. But I think they realize we tried really hard to deliver on what we said.
TVWeek: What had you said to the campaigns?
Mr. Bohrman: I had promised the campaigns that we would really work hard to avoid Democratic “gotchas.” That’s one of the reasons I probably would have used one of the other gay questions that was there that was as legitimate as the one we used. But the reality was: These were really good questions. Here’s a measure: The last time these Republicans debated, how many times did you hear Hillary Clinton’s name? Twenty-five or 30 times. Last night? Two or three. That’s because the debate was focused internally, on them. It wasn’t a debate against the Democrats. It’s not time yet for the debate against the Democrats. That’s next year.
TVWeek: Is there one thing that the general’s question says you need to add to your vetting process? Like adding a Google search?
Mr. Bohrman: No. We did a Google search, but you don’t get the Clinton thing unless you Google with “Clinton.” We did a Google search and guess what? We found out the guy’s this hugely decorated, real-life general who’s openly gay. We’ve since learned he’s a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, which is also sort of validating for who he is.


  1. Am I to understand that CNN didn’t ask the general “Are you connected in any way to any of the presidential candidates?”
    It’s such a basic question. The fact that they didn’t think to ask it speaks to the amateurish quality of the debate.
    Here’s a suggestion: When vetting prospective questioners ask each of them if they are connected to any of the campaigns. And then, just to show that you are professional journalists (as opposed to high school students just learning the trade) Google their names in conjunction with the various candidates. It will take a hour to go through the list. It’s time well spent when your credibility is on the line.
    P.S. I have no problem with gays in the military — they should be able to serve openly in my book — but I hate lazy journalists.

  2. The fact that CNN didn’t bother to ask “are you in any way connected to any presidential candidates” is the strongest evidence for what this so-called “Voice of The People” debate REALLY was:
    It was a group of partisan television producers gathered together with a pre-conceived idea of what they WANTED to be asked… then a mad search through 5000 videos to find the questions that ECHOED THEIR DESIRES.
    Notice what this fool from CNN says
    “Had we known it, we would have had a whole other round of discussions about his question, and my guess is we would not have run it. We would have used one of the other really good gay questions.”

  3. Interesting that the trades and many other news media are pushing the whole “general is a Clinton supporter” issue (which of course, misses the point; a question is a question), while ignoring the apparent bias of the question selection process. Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times has a strong opinion, which he related in Sunday’s paper, calling CNN the Corrupt News Network. The complete story is quite good and can be found at http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/business/newsletter/la-et-rutten1dec01,1,2183723.column

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