Questioner fuels more debate
Some viewers cry foul after CNN features a retired general with links to the Clinton campaign.
By WES ALISON and ERIC DEGGANS, Times Staff Writers
Published November 30, 2007
A passionate speech from a retired general that came late in the Republican CNN/YouTube debate at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater on Wednesday night struck some conservative viewers as oddly out of place.
So some of them Googled him.
By time the debate ended and moderator Anderson Cooper had turned to hosting his own show, Anderson Cooper 360, e-mails were flying among conservatives with the revelation that Keith Kerr had ties to the presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
CNN had staged the most watched presidential primary debate in cable history - nearly 5-million viewers - but all day Thursday was spent on damage control.
CNN officials apologized for featuring retired Brig. Gen. Kerr, 76, who challenged the Republican presidential candidates on the military's ban against openly gay personnel.
His name is on the Clinton campaign Web site as a member of her steering committees on gay rights and military affairs, and he also served on a veterans steering committee for Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004.
In a statement issued after midnight, David Bohrman, CNN's senior vice president and executive producer of the debate, said Kerr's military background was verified and the newschannel also checked to see if he had contributed to any campaigns. Kerr didn't volunteer his Clinton affiliation, Bohrman's statement said.
"CNN would not have used the general's question had we known that he was connected to any presidential candidate," Bohrman said.
But conservative bloggers spent much of the day Thursday dissecting the political ties of other questioners - all selected by CNN from video clips submitted to the video sharing Web site YouTube - suggesting the channel allowed too many people with declared sympathies for Democratic politicians to appear.
On blogs and Web sites like Outside the Beltway, Townhall.com and Redstate.org, Kerr was derided as a Clinton plant, and CNN - known in conservative circles as the Clinton News Network - as a willing accomplice.
Kerr's appearance, in which he was handed a microphone during the debate to address the candidates directly after his video question was played, drew particular criticism.
"They could have taken five minutes to (look up) this person's name on the Internet and find his connection," said Erick Erickson, editor of Redstate.org, a conservative blog that has suggested GOP candidates "do over" the debate on C-SPAN or PBS. "CNN said they would weed out the Democratic 'gotcha' questions. But they gave this guy a soapbox to make his point."
For Republicans seeking to win favor with the social conservatives who dominate the nomination process, Kerr's question - "I want to know why you think American men and women in uniform are not professional enough to serve with gays" - was a softball. With the exception of Romney, who once was sympathetic to gays in the military, none of the other candidates struggled to respond. They support the don't-ask-don't-tell-policy.
Kerr was profiled in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times years ago as one of three openly gay, retired high-ranking officers advocating to change the military's policy.
"For 42 years, I wore the Army uniform on active duty, in the Reserve, and also for the state of California," he said during Wednesday's debate. "Today, don't ask, don't tell is destructive to our military policy."
Kerr did not return repeated phone calls from the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday, but CNN had him on its morning news program to explain himself Thursday.
"I have not done any work," Kerr said. "Several friends asked me if I would allow my name to be listed, and I agreed, because she is such a strong advocate of gays and lesbian rights."
Erickson said Kerr's appearance prompted conservative bloggers to check his background online during the debate, e-mailing each other on his connection to Clinton before the event ended. Conservative pundit Bill Bennett noted what had been found on Cooper's show minutes later.
The controversy also raised other questions: Did Kerr deliberately withhold information on his political ties for his own reasons?
And did CNN's method for choosing questions, in which the 60 to 70 available queries were finalized in the 24 hours before the debate, make it impossible for the channel to fully vet any questioners for ties to Democratic campaigns?
CNN's political director Sam Feist said the channel didn't really investigate the political leanings of any questioners, focusing more on the questions they asked.
Kerr told CNN that he had not thought to tell the network about allowing his name to be included on Clinton's steering committees and that he was speaking for himself. Clinton's campaign also denied any involvement with the incident. The retired general was among several questioners invited to the debate by Google; their transportation and lodging was not paid for by CNN, Feist said.
"We didn't have an ideological litmus test for people," Feist said, noting that one prominent CNN critic, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, also works as a contributor for rival Fox News Channel. "I'm comfortable with the questions, and I'm comfortable with the process."
Some candidates seemed to shrug off the controversy. "It should been made public if this individual was a member of any other campaign, because I think that people then obviously have a better way of judging the quality of the question," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said during a campaign stop Thursday morning in St. Petersburg. "But I'm glad the issue came up. It continues to be an issue of discussion."
And while CNN's critics may remember this forever, political expert and University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato predicted the news network would see little lasting effect.
"It's embarrassing and, unfortunately for CNN, this is the sound bite of the moment," he said. "But we move on so quickly. ... The vast majority of Americans won't even know this happened."
What bloggers are writing
"This is utterly ridiculous. CNN should be incredibly ashamed, and people should be fired over this. As it is, there's no mention of it on their front page despite the fact that they put out a statement about the gay general/Hillary supporter last night."
"This debate was not about Republicans asking the Republican candidates questions. This was about CNN abusing its position to push a Democratic agenda. ... This has all the markings of a setup, and heads should roll at CNN."