Conservative Internet commentators were buzzing Thursday with accusations that producers had skewed the CNN-YouTube presidential debate by allowing Democratic partisans to pose tough questions to the Republican contenders.
Several bloggers said CNN had betrayed a liberal bias by selecting questions designed to put the eight presidential candidates on the defensive. But executives at the cable-TV network said they were proud of Wednesday night’s debate and had simply chosen 33 questions -- from nearly 5,000 submitted by videotape -- that would prompt a spirited and substantive discussion.
A review by the Los Angeles Times of the debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube four months ago found that the Democratic presidential candidates also faced queries that seemed to come from the conservative perspective. At least two of the citizen-interrogators had clear GOP leanings.
“We were looking for people who were interested enough in the process to ask a question,” Sam Feist, CNN’s political director, said Thursday. “We didn’t inquire about people’s ideological beliefs, and that wasn’t relevant. . . . We were looking for questions that would make for an interesting debate.”
Feist said that the high number of viewers who watched the two-hour session was proof that the network and the video- sharing service YouTube had achieved that goal. Nearly 5 million people tuned in, a record audience for cable television coverage of a primary debate, CNN said.
Controversy over the content of video questions began almost as soon as the broadcast ended, when Republican former Education Secretary William J. Bennett said on CNN that one of the questioners had ties to the presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr, who is gay, had asked the candidates why gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to serve openly in the military. Kerr is a member of a steering committee for Clinton on gay and lesbian issues.
Although the retired military man and Clinton’s camp said the Democratic candidate had nothing to do with the question, CNN apologized. David Bohrman, executive producer of the debate, said the network wanted to avoid “gotcha” questions from clear Democratic partisans and would not have allowed the query if it had known of Kerr’s ties to the Clinton campaign.
But several Internet commentators said the cable-TV network should have screened out Democratic partisans, who they said “hijacked” the Republican forum. In postings that popped up throughout the day Thursday, they said that: A Texas woman identified only as “Journey,” who asked if women should be punished for having abortions, had appeared in another YouTube video wearing a “John Edwards ’08" T-shirt; a man asking a question during the debate about gay rights had also appeared on a social networking site as a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and a Manhattan Beach man -- while tasting an ear of corn and asking a tough question about farm subsidies -- had once worked as a summer intern for Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice).
Jay Tea was one of several to complain, writing at the blog Wizbang: “Those were good, solid questions. But CNN, by playing by completely contradictory standards for its questioners at debates, betrays its bias: the Democrats get to stack their questions to make their candidates look good; the Republicans find themselves having to squirm and evade, or give concrete answers that won’t make some people very happy.”
But, CNN’s Feist said, conservative commentators did not complain when questioners who shared their political ideology had videos aired during the Democratic forum in July.
During that session, one video questioner asked the candidates to choose between raising taxes or cutting benefits in order to save Social Security. Another demanded to know whether taxes would rise “like usually they do when a Democrat comes in office.” A third featured a gun-toting Michigan man, who in an interview Thursday said he had voted twice for President Bush, who wanted to know if the Democrats would protect his “baby” -- an assault rifle he cradled in his arms.
Another questioner from that forum who seemed to have clear conservative credentials was John McAlpin, a sailor who asked Clinton: “How do you think you would be taken seriously” by Arab and Muslim nations that treat women as “second-class citizens”?
McAlpin’s MySpace page features pictures of Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Republican presidential candidate.
It depicts Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly as a friend, while offering a caricature of a bearded, turban-wearing “Borat Hussein Obama” -- a derogatory reference to Obama, the Democratic candidate who as a youth attended a Muslim school.
CNN officials said that in the Democratic debate, as in Wednesday’s Republican encounter, they had not attempted to determine the party or ideology of the questioners.