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CNN Admits Holes in Screening of Questioners

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

CNN expressed regret yesterday for allowing a Hillary Clinton adviser to ask a question at Wednesday's Republican presidential debate, even as controversy swirled about two other questioners who have declared their support for Democratic candidates.

Retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr, who asked why gays should not be allowed to serve openly in the military, is a member of Clinton's steering committee on gay and lesbian issues, something her campaign disclosed in a news release in June.

"Had we known that, we probably wouldn't have used the question," said David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief, who produced the debate. He added that "you could spend hours Googling everybody. What we cared about was that he was real." CNN deleted Kerr's question from a rebroadcast of the debate.

The New York senator's campaign said in a statement that "Gen. Kerr is not a campaign employee and was not acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign."

Kerr, a Californian who said he became openly gay after 43 years in the military, was one of 5,000 people who submitted videotaped questions through YouTube. CNN also placed Kerr in the St. Petersburg, Fla., audience, where he followed up by calling the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy "destructive."

Moderator Anderson Cooper acknowledged the error involving Kerr after Bill Bennett, the conservative author and radio host who is a network contributor, raised it during a post-debate discussion. Bennett said yesterday that his radio producer e-mailed him information from a National Review blog.

"It shouldn't have ever happened," Bennett said. "You've got to vet that sort of thing."

On CNN's "American Morning," Kerr said he has done nothing for the Clinton campaign and that the video was "a private initiative on my own." He also said he has supported Republicans.

Bohrman said network staffers, struck by Kerr's "very powerful" question, verified his military service and determined from federal records that he had made no campaign contributions. He said CNN never spoke to Kerr and had Google, which owns YouTube, bring the retired general and about a dozen other questioners to the debate because their videos were likely to be used, although no decision had been made.

CNN teamed with YouTube in July for a Democratic debate that marked the first such use of citizen-submitted videos. The Republican debate was delayed because of candidate concerns about the format.

Bohrman said the network rejected "quite a few" questioners who were found to have public ties or donations to other candidates. He said the network's goal was to avoid "obvious Democratic 'gotcha' questions."

Another YouTube questioner, a Texas woman who identified herself as "Journey," asked what the punishment should be for women who have abortions and the doctors who perform them, if the procedure were made illegal. After the debate, she posted another YouTube video criticizing the candidates' responses -- while wearing a "John Edwards 08" T-shirt.

A third questioner, David Cercone, asked the candidates whether they would accept the support of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay organization.

In a profile on Sen. Barack Obama's Web site, Cercone wrote about "why I support Barack Obama: He is a leader who inspires me with his sincerity, his earnestness, and his vision for change."

Conservative bloggers, some of whom deride CNN as the "Clinton News Network," ripped the network yesterday. At InstaPundit, Glenn Reynolds wrote: "Once again, CNN demonstrates an inexplicable failure to background-check pro-Hillary questioners." Scott Johnson of PowerLine wrote that "CNN has shown itself unable or unwilling to act as an honest broker."

James Joyner at Outside the Beltway, said: "If lone bloggers can vet these people in less than half an hour, surely CNN's crack journalistic team should have been able to do so between the time they selected the pool of questions and the airing of the debate?"

Bohrman said he had no problem using questioners who have voiced support for other candidates as long as they are not donors or formally affiliated with any campaign. "We bent over backwards to be fair," he said. "We're not perfect. But we tried extremely hard."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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