I only saw a little of the Republican presidential debate last night, which featured video questions sent in through YouTube selected by CNN. There’s a lot of griping this morning about how the debate was an embarrassment and a bad night for the GOP in general because CNN chose questions that were either defiantly peculiar, beneath contempt, or freakish. I wonder if there’s a little oversensitivity at work here, because the great surprise of the first YouTube debate in September, featuring Democrats, was how substantive it was and how it forced the Democratic field to engage for the first time in discussing policy differences. That was even true about the question from the man dressed in the snowman costume.
What is notable, however, is what a hash CNN is making in this long election season of its self-described reputation as “the first name in news.” In two successive debates now, CNN has made editorial decisions that range from the bizarre to the scandalous. The bizarre conduct came in the Democratic debate in Nevada two weeks ago, which concluded with a bubbly young woman asking a vapid question about whether Hillary Clinton preferred diamonds or pearls. When that young woman came under withering assault for wasting time with something so stupid, she said she had wanted to ask about nuclear-waste removal but that a CNN producer had pushed her to come up with something lighter.
Think about that the next time someone tells you that CNN is preferable to the Fox News Channel because it is “more serious.” (Yes, for the record, I am a Fox News Channel contributor, but in this context, even MSNBC is positively Ciceronian compared to CNN.)
The scandalous aspect last night is that three Democratic operatives were allowed to pose as “unaffiliated voters” asking questions specifically designed to embarrass the entire Republican party, not just the candidates on stage. Given the fact that it took bloggers all of 12 seconds to figure this out, one has to ask how on earth CNN producers didn’t think to do the elementary spade work of simply Googling the names of the questioners to ensure they met the “unaffiliated voter” standard CNN and YouTube had set out.
It’s easy to see why CNN’s producers liked their questions. It’s because those questions echoed the partisan prejudices of CNN producers. This sort of liberal media bias would have been far less of an issue if we were talking about a debate between the Democratic and Republican nominees for president, because in those circumstances both candidates are seeking to govern all Americans, even those who don’t vote for them. But in a Republican primary debate, when it is GOP members who are trying to determine which candidate should best represent their party, an overwhelmingly Democratic institution like CNN needs to be specially conscious of the way its biases might play into question selection. If CNN had been conscious about this, and had therefore been prudent about checking out the identities and preferences of the video questioners it had selected, it would have avoided plunging itself into a days-long spiral of embarrassment about the network’s lack of professionalism, absence of care, and spiraling unseriousness.