Update: The piece aired at 4:40, and I think NPR covered us fairly. What came across in the segment was pretty much what occurred in the room.
I should have been more suspicious.
You might hear me briefly on "All Things Considered" on NPR between 4-6pm today. I participated in a discussion about the Republican youTube debate at a friend's house, run by NPR. They wanted the reactions of registered Republicans from NH who were undecided (independents were also encouraged). We discussed the debate for well over an hour after it was finished, but the comments will be edited down to a five-minute segment. So I may not make the final cut at all, or they may broadcast only the most inane thing I said, or they might splice it and package it to give a different impression than what I meant. But perhaps I will use up 30 seconds of my fifteen minutes of fame today.
It turns out that many of the questions from "regular folks" from youTube were in fact planted by people working for Democratic candidates or activist groups.
This irritates me on many levels.
Let me note at the outset that I don't fault NPR for any of this. Lord knows I have kicked NPR often enough (Nine examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), but they operated in good faith. (Unless of course they just wanted me to think that, and the photographer was actually a nefarious operative from the Clinton campaign who is even now downloading my image into fancy face-recognition software...) The woman doing the interviewing, who I gather is well-known in NPR circles, seemed intelligent, pleasant, and evenhanded. She made some sotto voce comments during the debate, but fewer than I did, and not especially prejudicing.
CNN had an absolute responsibility to either weed out the questions from special-interest groups or make the connections plain. I thought it unfair when Grover Norquist got his question in, because he has a ready audience already, and this was supposed to be just regular folks. To me, Norquist took a slot that was "reserved" for everyday folks.
You will notice that the one connection to political groups that CNN felt it had to mention was the one conservative group. Fancy that. A sudden twinge of journalistic conscience when a conservative group might benefit, complete obliviousness when liberal groups do the same. Shameful. This is why you turn off your TV, throw away your newspapers and news magazines, and start your news-reading with Instapundit every day.
So Norquist was the least of the offenders.
My son points out that once an unfair question has been asked, we still very much want to hear a candidate's response to it. We want to see how he reacts under pressure, not so much to see how smooth he is, but to get a sense of "What does it take to throw this guy off?" and "What principles does he revert to when cornered?" We get immediately distracted from recognizing that the original question was stupid. Because the press won't be fair, and the other nations of the world won't be fair, it is useful to see how a potential president will react to an unfair question.
I did find myself wishing that candidates would start by saying "That's a false question." That is probably a campaign no-no, because too many people would see it as evasive, but it simply shows me that the candidate has the intelligence to recognize a false question. Yasmin's question was what a presidential candidate would do to repair relations with Moslems, now that America has done so much to make them worse. I don't accept the received wisdom that Muslims are angrier at us than they were a few years ago. Some Muslims clearly are. Some, notably in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan, like us better. Pretending that the Muslim opinion of the US is a monolithic bloc is simply untrue and Yasmin knows this. She may tell herself all the usual rationalizations that human beings are prone to, that all the "right" Muslims, or "real" Muslims, or "important" Muslims agree with her, but the Islamic organizations wouldn't devote so much energy to internal PR if they thought everyone agreed with them. Yasmin knows that there are large groups of Moslems who would disagree with her, but pretends otherwise. I wish a candidate had mentioned that.
The young man who indirectly claimed that Jesus would be against the death penalty also asked a false question. His might have been mere stupidity rather than dishonesty, but the result is the same. Jesus has no recorded opinions on the matter. He generally deflected questions about power and government back to questions of individual piety. His immediate followers made no comments on the issue, and the pertinent verses about loving one's enemies have varied application to social situations. Only by cherry-picking Bible quotes can one come to a firm conclusion of what Jesus "must have meant." Odd that it is the anti-fundamentalists who take such a fundamentalist approach to the Scriptures.
I am irritated at myself for not seeing through this. I went to the NPR event playing it straight. CNN presented the questions as being from the general population, and I took that at face value. More fool I. I didn't doubt that groups would try to hijack the system and sneak in their own questions, but I imagined, on the basis of no evidence, that someone at CNN knew how to use a search engine and that professional journalists would know how to smell a rat. What was I thinking? CNN has no interest in giving the people a voice - their dual interests are A)attracting viewers and B) making Republican candidates look stupid.
I'm pleased the candidates did as well as they did with the bad questions.
Consider an analogous situation: If Lyndon Johnson had taken questions at town meeting from the crowd, and it turned out that the moderator had called on a number of Nixon operatives without identifying them, we would think that Johnson had been a victim of dirty tricks. We would also know that the regular folks hadn't really had a chance to ask their questions.