It was not one of the 2016 primary’s major moments.
At a CNN-TVOne town hall event on March 13, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton went face to face with Ricky Jackson, a man who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1975. He was just a teenager then.
His exoneration came after spending 39 years in prison. His question for Clinton: “I came perilously close to my own execution, and in light of that, what I have just shared with you and in light of the fact that there are documented cases of innocent people who have been executed in our country, I would like to know, how can you still take your stance on the death penalty in light of what we know right now?”
Clinton responded at length, expressing a lack of confidence that the states could capably manage the ultimate penalty. However: “Where I end up is this, and maybe it is distinction that is hard to support, but at this point, given the challenges we face from terrorist activities primarily in our country that end up under federal jurisdiction for very limited purposes, I think that it can still be held in reserve for those,” said the candidate.
On the campaign trail, candidates need to be ready for any sort of question — and perhaps Clinton had a bit of extra preparation for this one. In a leaked trove of emails concerning Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta, there appears one with the heading, “From time to time I get the questions in advance.” The email was written by Donna Brazile, who was then a CNN contributor and a reputable Democratic strategist. Here’s the text of the email, which was sent a day before the town hall:
Here’s one that worries me about HRC.
DEATH PENALTY 19 states and the District of Columbia have banned the death penalty. 31 states, including Ohio, still have the death penalty. According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, since 1973, 156 people have been on death row and later set free. Since 1976, 1,414 people have been executed in the U.S. That’s 11% of Americans who were sentenced to die, but later exonerated and freed. Should Ohio and the 30 other states join the current list and abolish the death penalty?
Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director for the campaign, wrote back, “Hi. Yes, it is one she gets asked about. Not everyone likes her answer but can share it.” She instructed an aide to send Clinton’s position along. That sequence suggests that Brazile may have been forwarding the question for her own purposes — that is, to be prepared for some panel discussion about the death penalty. If so, it shows just how faithfully a CNN contributor seeks to toe the Clinton line.
The next evening, CNN’s Jake Tapper and Roland Martin of TVOne hosted a town hall at Ohio State University in Columbus. That’s where Jackson asked his question; he was introduced to the audience by Martin. Note that the question posed by Jackson wasn’t the same exact one that Brazile passed along to the Clinton campaign — but the gist was similar.
A spokeswoman for CNN tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “We have never, ever given a town hall question to anyone beforehand.” A CNN source tells the Erik Wemple Blog that debate and town hall questions are so closely guarded that they’re not even shared via email. “Nothing is ever transmitted electronically,” says this source. We are awaiting a response to questions from the Clinton campaign. Brazile stopped being a CNN contributor in July, when she stepped in to take over the leadership of the Democratic National Committee following the departure of Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
We’ve also left an inquiry with TVOne about the matter.
Answers are necessary. There is no more solemn duty for a news organization than to keep its inquiries to itself — and later pose them to politicians without a sneak peek.
Wherever the question came from, here’s a request for CNN: Can you please review your policy of hiring every plugged-in political operative around the Beltway? In recent months, the Erik Wemple Blog has questioned the outlet’s hiring of fired Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who carried numerous conflicts of interest into his work with CNN: He was still being paid severance as he “opined” about Trump stuff all summer long, and it appears that he was bound by a nondisclosure/nondisparagement arrangement as well. There are other cases, too: CNN political commentator Maria Cardona, according to another email release, previewed an entire CNN.com Op-Ed piece with the DNC.
Update: Brazile has issued this statement —
“As a longtime political activist with deep ties to our party, I supported all of our candidates for president. I often shared my thoughts with each and every campaign, and any suggestions that indicate otherwise are simply untrue. As it pertains to the CNN Debates, I never had access to questions and would never have shared them with the candidates if I did.
“But let’s get one thing straight. Our Intelligence Community has made it clear that the Russian government is responsible for the cyberattacks aimed at interfering with our election, and that WikiLeaks is part of that effort. This revelation should deeply trouble all Americans in both parties. And yet, Donald Trump continues to deny that Russia is behind these attempts to meddle with our electoral process and cheer on these efforts to undermine our democracy.
“This is the same man who called for more Russian cyber-espionage against us, who has extensive business ties to Russia, and who regularly coddles Vladimir Putin by praising his leadership and refusing to call him out. I am deeply disappointed that the Republican leaders of the party of Reagan are publicly using information illegally obtained by the Russians, because the national security of our country should not be a partisan issue.
“We are in the process of verifying the authenticity of these documents because it is common for Russia to spread misinformation and forge documents, but we cannot bow down to Putin’s wishes and allow foreign actors to try and divide our country with the hope of affecting the outcome on Election Day. There is too much at stake.” – DNC Interim Chair Donna Brazile