CNN Needn’t Apologize

Kerr’s question was legitimate, not a partisan plant

The president of CNN could not have sounded more contrite. In today’s New York Times, Jon Klein lamented the small storm that has raged in the blogosphere - and, really, nowhere else - over the background of one of the questioners at the CNN-YouTube debate that took place on Wednesday night. The format allowed for regular folks to submit questions that were then addressed to the Republican candidates, and a few of those people whose video-questions were chosen were flown to Florida to sit in the live audience.

It turns out that the elderly gentleman, retired Brigadier General Keith Kerr, who, in his video and then in person, asked why gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to serve openly in the military — as he had in secret for over forty years — had been listed as one of the four-dozen national co-chairmen of Veterans and Military Retirees for Hillary. Also, he’s a member on one of Clinton’s steering committees for gay and lesbian issues.

“Had we known ahead of time,” Mr. Klein told the Times, “we would probably not have used his question. It raised too many flags, in terms of motivation.”

CNN vetted the questioners whose YouTube videos were chosen to be aired. They did a basic Internet search and then checked to see if they had donated to any campaign. But that did not turn up Kerr’s affiliation because he has never donated money to Clinton. He even says he has supported Republican candidates in the past. Clinton’s camp issued a statement declaring that, “Gen. Kerr is not a campaign employee and was not acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign.”

The YouTube debates are a new forum and everybody has his own interpretation of who exactly constitutes a member of the Joe Schmo public. CNN is understandably touchy about this subject, not wanting to turn the mike over to rabidly partisan questioners. But the case of Brigadier General Kerr is not as problematic as it is being made out to be by the right-wing blogs.

Kerr was asking legitimate question, not of the “gotcha” variety. He was not put up to it by anyone. He submitted his own YouTube video, and told CNN the following day that it was “a private initiative on my own.” All of this, in my book, should qualify him to ask a question as a member of the public without any need for disclaimers.

Even Jon Klein said that although he regrets not vetting Kerr more thoroughly, he is happy that the question was asked:

We were looking for questions that would help Republican voters decide amongst the candidates. We didn’t particularly care who was asking the question, as long as it was strong and relevant to the race.

That sounds right to me, and much more accurate than the cloying apology Klein also felt the need to issue.

Where does it end? Does CNN need to weed out of the audience anyone who has ever attended a Democratic rally or flipped through Barack Obama’s book at a Barnes and Noble? As it was, at least two other questioners from that debate were later deemed unsatisfactory by the blogging heads. One woman, named “Journey,” asked a question about abortion and was later spotted in another YouTube video criticizing the candidates’ responses — while wearing a “John Edwards 08” T-shirt. Still another questioner, who asked if the candidates would accept the support of Log Cabin Republicans, wrote in a profile on Obama’s Web site about how swell he thought the junior senator from Illinois was.

The minimum threshold at these forums should be pegged to interesting questions that elicit telling answers. Klein seems to understand this at some level, but is also too afraid to upset the partisan hounds. The questioners should not be either sycophantic or asking obviously partisan “gotcha” questions. Everything else should be fair game.

This campaign so far has been fraught with bad and stupid questions to the candidates. Can we really afford to disqualify a good one when it comes along?

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.