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What was CNN thinking?

   Joe Scarborough, MSNBC's morning man, called it a Clinton setup, and said CNN was hiding something.

Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, was referring to the YouTube question and personal appearance at CNN's Republican candidates' forum on Wednesday night of a questioner who had signed on as a member of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender task force of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.

The man is Keith Kerr, a retired brigadier general in the Army National Guard, who revealed after his retirement that he is gay. Kerr appeared on CNN in 2003 advocating that the Defense Department scrap its "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the uniformed services.

In June, the Clinton campaign announced Kerr as one of dozens of members of her GLBT group in widely distributed e-mails.

In the YouTube video that CNN selected for the debate, Kerr asked the GOP candidates if they would reverse the policy agreed to during the Clinton administration. None said they would.

Then the moderator, Anderson Cooper, called on Kerr, who had been given a seat in the front of
the auditorium, to respond in person. Kerr was handed a microphone, said he wasn't satisfied with the answers, and began a speech urging his point of view on the candidates and the viewing audience that was interrupted by an apparent line malfunction.

After the episode, Cooper and CNN were deluged with e-mails and phone calls asking whether Kerr's affiliation with the Clinton campaign was known beforehand.

Cooper and CNN said they didn't know. CNN voiced regrets about the incident. But conservatives maintained that among the nearly three dozen YouTube videos picked from the 5,000 submitted, two or more were done by persons linked to the Democratic presidential campaigns of Barak Obama and John Edwards.

The kindest thing a professional journalist can say about the episode is that it was "clumsy." But is Scarbough's view entirely unreasonable? CNN's responses don't reflect the transparency the network claims it wants from those seeking public office.

Exactly who picked Kerr's YouTube video? How did he, among all the questioners, wind up with a
good seat in the hall? And why was he allowed to lecture the candidates?

The event was eerily reminiscent of CNN's "Town Hall" program in 2000 at the University at Buffalo where then Senate candidate Hillary Clinton appeared. Instead of moderator Wolf Blitzer posing the questions, CNN said it was asking questions submitted by people in the auditorium.

However, behind the scenes CNN and UB selected who would be admitted to the hall, and asked that questions be submitted 24 hours in advance. Among those excluded were staffers of UB's student newspaper, The Spectrum.

For future presidential forums, wouldn't it be best to scrap this phony town hall format once and for all, and let the moderator ask the questions and take the heat for what the public or candidates don't like?

--- Douglas Turner


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