THE United States is at war in the Middle East and Central Asia, the economy is writhing like a snake with a broken back, oil prices are relentlessly climbing toward $100 a barrel and an increasing number of Americans just can't afford to be sick with anything that won't be treated with aspirin and bed rest.
So, when CNN brought the Republican presidential candidates together this week for what is loosely termed a "debate," what did the country get but a discussion of immigration, Biblical inerrancy and the propriety of flying the Confederate flag?
In fact, this most recent debacle masquerading as a presidential debate raises serious questions about whether CNN is ethically or professionally suitable to play the political role the Democratic and Republican parties recently have conceded it.
Selecting a president is, more than ever, a life and death business, and a news organization that consciously injects itself into the process, as CNN did by hosting Wednesday's debate, incurs a special responsibility to conduct itself in a dispassionate and, most of all, disinterested fashion. When one considers CNN's performance, however, the adjectives that leap to mind are corrupt and incompetent.
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.
HERE'S what Pew found: By an overwhelming margin, Americans think the war in Iraq is the most important issue facing the United States, followed by the economy, healthcare and energy prices. In fact, if you lump the war into a category with terrorism and other foreign policy issues, 40% of Americans say foreign affairs are their biggest concern in this election cycle. If you do something similar with all issues related to the economy, 31% list those questions as their most worrisome issue. As anybody who has looked at their 401(k) or visited a gas pump would expect, that aggregate figure has increased dramatically since Pew started polling in January. Back then, for example, concerns over the war outpaced economic anxieties by fully 8 to 1. By contrast, just 6% of the survey's national sample said that immigration was the most important electoral issue. Moreover, that number hasn't changed in a statistically meaningful way since the first of the year. In other words, more than nine out of 10 Americans think something matters more than immigration in this presidential election.
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.
According to this most recent poll, a substantial number of Americans believe the surge is working. As Pew summarized their findings, "While Iraq remains a deeply polarizing issue across party lines, there has been improvement in how both Democrats and Republicans view the war. At the lowest point in February, barely half of Republicans (51%) said things were going well. Today, 74% of Republicans say the same. And while Democrats remain far more skeptical than Republicans, the proportion of Democrats expressing a positive view of the Iraq effort has doubled since February (from 16% to 33%).
"Independents' assessments of how the military effort is going remain far closer to the views of Democrats than of Republicans. Currently, 41% of independents offer a positive assessment, while half say things are not going well. In February, 26% of independents expressed a positive view of the situation in Iraq."
Those are significant swings of opinion, yet the poll also found that more than half of Americans still favor withdrawing American troops. That disconnect is a real issue for the GOP candidates, all but one of whom support the war. Unless we're going to believe that the self-selecting YouTube questioners were utterly different from the rest of American voters, it seems pretty clear that CNN ignored these complex -- and highly relevant concerns -- for an issue that served its ratings interests -- immigration -- or ones that made for moments of conventional television conflict, like gun control, which doesn't even show up in surveys of voters' concerns.
THIS is intellectual venality, but it pales beside the wickedness of using some crackpot's query about the candidates' stand on Biblical inerrancy to do something that's anathema in our system -- to probe people's individual religious consciences. American journalists quite legitimately ask candidates about policy issues -- say, abortion -- that might be influenced by their religious or philosophical convictions. We do not and should not ask them about those convictions themselves. It's nobody's business whether a candidate believes in the virgin birth, whether God gave an oral Torah to Moses at Sinai, whether the Buddha escaped the round of birth and rebirth or whether an angel appeared to Joseph Smith.
The latter point is relevant because CNN's noxious laundering of this question through the goofy YouTube mechanism quite clearly was designed to embarrass Mitt Romney -- who happens to be a Mormon -- and, secondarily, to help Mike Huckabee -- who, as a Baptist minister, had a ready answer, and who happens to be television's campaign flavor of the month.
Beside considerations like these, CNN's incompetent failure to weed out Democratically connected questioners pales.
In any event, CNN has failed in its responsibilities to the political process and it's time for the leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties to take the network out of our electoral affairs.