Thursday, November 29, 2007

Partly Snookered

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.


terri said...

I didn't watch it, but this is America where you don't have to actually know what you're talking about to have an opinion. :-)

hmmm..I would venture to say that CNN listed the connection to the conservative group because the Republicans are conservative, and hopefully would have done the same with a liberal to Democrat situation.

I don't think that questions can be "unfair". They can be asked in a leading way, which candidates should point out and correct.

Most people don't care if candidates are asked difficult questions or have the holes in their ideas pointed out. Instead, they want to make sure that the candidates aren't getting a cushy set-up for an answer that flatters them. a la Hillary's question fiasco, or FEMA's fake press conference.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about that.

Of course candidates should be asked difficult questions. How else are we to judge?

But I don't think that is the problem here.

Let's see:
For the Democratic primary debate let's sneak in Dem. party operatives to ask the questions, but represent them as undecided voters.

For the Republican primary debate, why don't we sneak in, oh, you know, Dem. party operatives to ask the questions, but represent them as undecided voters.

I don't think this quite boils down to 'unfair questions'. And if you don't think this sort of tinkering is an abdication of CNN's responsibility and can leave a viewer with a vastly distorted view of the candidates, then just envision this:

A Democratic primary debate, hosted by Fox, representing questioners as undecided voters. But, unbeknownst to the viewers, the questions are actually coming from a combination of Republican operatives and fans of the Rush Limbaugh show.

Seem fair to you?

Dubbahdee said...

Anonymous, I don't get your point. Could you clarify? Are you saying that the questions were unfair, but it doesn't matter? Or are you saying that the were not unfair?

Sorry if I'm dense. Please humor me.

Anonymous said...

The first commenter stated that there is no such thing as unfair questions. I'm saying that this is not the point. If you are going to make that argument to justify what CNN did, then tell me that it would be ok for the Dems to get the same treatment, rather than the polar opposite.

If the Democrat candidates only answer questions posed by Republican staffers (intent on making the candidate look bad rather than interested in discovering his views on matters of importance), will the average Dem. voter get the info he needs to make a choice between the Dem. candidates?

We had 'questions' that were not questions so much as accusations - When is the last time you beat your wife type of statements.

For example, CNN flow in a campaign worker for Hillary, represented him as an 'undecided voter', and this is his non-question:

"My name’s Keith Kerr, from Santa Rosa, California. I’m a retired brigadier general with 43 years of service. I’m a graduate of the Special Forces Officer Course, the Commanding General Staff Course and the Army War College. And I’m an openly gay man. I want to know why you think that American men and women in uniform are not professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians."

This isn't a question. It's an accusation, designed to create a gotcha moment. And as a Republican trying to choose a candidate, it helps me not at all. It is deceptive on CNN's part. CNN stated that this debate would be for and by Republicans.

And this is but one example from the debate. The confederate flag question, etc. had the same intent- create a leftists' caricature of the Republican candidates. So no, I don't think the idea that 'there is no such thing as an unfair question' quite covers the issue.

Anonymous said...

Here is a comparison, lifted from a commentator on another site:

Once upon a time, back in Texas state politics, LBJ is reputed to have told an aide to spread rumors that LBJ’s opponent regularly initiated carnal relations with his barnyard livestock. The aide, shocked, said, “Lyndon, we can’t call him a pig-****er!”

To which LBJ replied, “We don’t want to call him anything. We want to make him deny it.”

The debate had a lot of this type of thing - the bible question suggesting Republicans are religious zealots, the confederate flag question suggesting racism, etc.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

anon again, great examples. Wish I'd said that.

A true undecided voter asks something like "What's your position on gays in the military?" or "Do you think 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is working?" None of us can resist the temptation to editorialize a little, in word or tone, when we ask questions, but although the topics were legitimate, the phrasing was not.

terri said...

So...what would the solution be?

Should CNN have only allowed registered Republicans to submit questions? After all, a candidate has to be picked for the Party in the primaries before he runs for President. Should the questions have been slanted toward things that are of more importance to Republicans, rather than general topics that independents/undecideds are interested in?

It seems that there would need to be a specific purpose and goal for the debate before one could cry foul. would you weed out someone who is part of a Dem. organization from someone who is wildly liberal, but affiliated with a group?

Maybe I'm just too naive or give the benefit of doubt more easily.

Either way, I think AVI's son has a good point; that every question--no matter how wild--is an opportunity for a candidate to show us how he/she will deal with bizarreness, leading questions, and the unexpected weirdness that happens.

Unrelated....AVI--I keep waiting for your post about the New Hampshire/Hillary Clinton hostage situation. He said he had mental problems.

Any inside stories?

terri said...

I meant "not affiliated with a group"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

If CNN were taking questions at random, or according to a system, like "every 100th one," then I think you just take your chances: whoever gets through, gets through.

They chose to select the videos by some unknown criteria. I imagine that quality might have had some influence, and interest of national interest were given preference, for example. That's fine, and they don't necessarily need to be explicit about what their criteria were. An actual objective journalist might legitimately go with a hunch - "I thought the question was well put, and the answer would be of interest to primary voters." One wouldn't have to even apply strictly the requirement that it be primarily of interest to Republicans or undecideds. For a good question, you might bend that rule a little.

It also wouldn't especially bother me if some group succeeded in sneaking their question through.

What we have here is much more systematic. One-third of the questions were plants of one sort or another. How did CNN get such a high percentage? The most likely answer is that they "just felt," as a group, that these were the best questions. We now come to the deeper problem. The judges at CNN "just felt" that the trapping, hostile questions that professional Democratic activists would ask were the best questions. That is, their sense of what is fair, when they do not apply correctives to their possible prejudices, turn out to be exactly like anti-Republican activists.

I put myself in their shoes. If I were to choose questions from the people for a Democratic (or Green, Libertarian) primary debate, I would be embarrassed to find that what I had chosen had such a systematic bias. I would immediately ask myself "Am I being quite fair? I mean, I think these are good questions, and everyone else at the table things so, but we all lean right, and the questions we like are not only all from conservatives, but from conservative activists."

An objective person would take this as automatic evidence that something was wrong with their choices. Such skewed selection would be prima facie evidence that one had moved from the question "What do the people want to ask?" to the question "What do I think they should be asked?"

It is rather like when the students vote on who is the homecoming queen but the faculty advisor chooses someone else who they think would be a better choice. Why bother to have the students vote, then? In like manner, why have YouTube video questions from The People, when you are just going to overrule that and take more questions from the Right People?

If you wander around the blogs and news sites that allow comments and read the people who are defending what CNN did, you will find that their reasoning boils down to "No, no, those questions should have been allowed, because they were the right questions." Hardly very democratic, and it feeds into the conservative criticism that liberals are not actually very much interested in democracy, but in getting their way.

Anonymous said...

Terry asks " would you weed out someone who is part of a Dem. organization from someone who is wildly liberal, but affiliated with a group?"

Terry, CNN is a major organization with bountiful resources. The identity of these people was not a secret, even if some of them may have misrepresented themselves.

Many of them were identified by conservative bloggers while the debate was still in progress using tools available to any of us, such as Google.

Some conservative sites had posts up identifying them, like I said, before the debate was even over. Others were identifyied that evening and the next day.

And these were people with nowhere NEAR the resources of CNN. We aren't asking for perfection here. This is just unreasonable.

When you add to the equation the fact that the Democrats debate had the same thing going on...only this time it was-wait for it- Democrats again, well, what can you say about CNN?

Der Hahn said...

I agree with you on this point, AVI. CNN selected the questions, and the selection process seems to have been entirely subjective. It doesn't matter whose lips were moving, these were *CNN's* questions.