People criticize CNN all the time, on social media, on television, on the radio. Most of it fizzles. However: When a survivor of a horrific school shooting in Parkland, Fla., criticizes the 24/7 network for alleged misfeasance in handling the issue of gun violence, a local story takes an immediate hop to the national stage.
“I expected to be able ask my questions and give my opinion on my questions,” said Colton Haab, a JROTC student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a gunman last week killed 17 people. Haab was speaking to WPLG-TV, an ABC affiliate in Florida, and the topic was CNN’s headline-making town-hall event on Wednesday night in Sunrise, Fla., at which survivors of the school shooting directly challenged lawmakers on gun control and school safety. “CNN had originally asked me to write a speech and questions and it ended up being all scripted,” said Haab, 17, who had reportedly suggested deploying veterans to protect schools.
Such was the story’s momentum that Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Thursday night welcomed Haab for an interview regarding his interactions with CNN. A raised Carlson eyebrow persisted through the entire session, as the host did his best to frame this episode as the week’s media scandal. “At the request of a CNN producer, you sent in a number of questions, statements you wanted to make, questions you wanted to ask of the politicians on the stage, and they rewrote one of your questions? Is that right?” asked Carlson.
Conspiratorial framework notwithstanding, Carlson and Haab did a public service by airing a detailed rundown of what happened. The quick and dirty: Days before the town hall, Haab told Carlson, CNN’s Carrie Stevenson — executive producer of special projects — contacted him about the event. “She had asked me originally to just write a speech,” said Haab. In the next round of correspondence, Stevenson asked for less of a speech and “more … questions that I wanted to ask at the town hall. The day after that, it was more of just questions. She asked for just questions that I would like to ask.” The goal of the exercise, Haab discovered, was one question.
“She had taken that — of what I had briefed on — and actually wrote that question out for me,” said Haab, who didn’t attend the event. “They had taken what I had wrote and what I had briefed on and talked about and they actually wrote the question for me.”
Carlson: “But that seems dishonest.”
An alternative interpretation: It seems perfectly thorough and professional. Look at what happened here:
- A top CNN producer — Stevenson — took the initiative to contact Haab, who had gotten on the network’s radar via previous interviews, including one with “Fox & Friends.” “If Coach [Aaron] Feis had had his firearm in school that day, I believe that he could most likely have stopped the threat,” said Haab.
- Stevenson asked Haab what he’d like to address at the town hall, and what questions he wished to pose to politicians.
- In an email offering four questions, Haab had included this: “Have we thought about having a class for teachers who are willing to be armed trained to carry on campus?” According to a CNN source, Stevenson discussed the whole thing with Haab in a phone call. CNN’s plan was to have Haab preface that question with the observation he’d already made on “Fox & Friends,” such that Haab would face Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) with these words:
Senator Nelson, if Coach Feis had had his firearm in school that day, I believe that he could have most likely stopped the threat. Have we thought about having a class for teachers who are willing to be armed trained to carry on campus?
According to the CNN source, Glenn Haab, the boy’s father, intervened toward the end of the process, insisting that Colton Haab present some “background” thoughts to precede his question at the town hall. “We are not actors nor do we read from a script,” wrote Glenn Haab in an email to Stevenson. “The short background before each question is extremely relevant to each question. “I[f] you want Colton only to read this one short question – we are not the right people for your town hall meeting.”
Years ago, the proto-Erik Wemple Blog covered municipal politics in the District of Columbia. A critical part of the assignment was attending community events and debates in which organizers would place a microphone in an aisle and invite attendees to step up and ask a question. Perhaps the most commonly repeated refrain from such events came from the moderator: “Sir, could you please get to your question?”
Indeed: When they’re given the floor, people tend to filibuster. And when they’re not filibustering, they’re repeating the same question asked by the person before them. Or they’re asking about something entirely foreign from the topic at hand. This isn’t to criticize such folks, who are almost invariably well-meaning, engaged citizens.
Yet CNN is a television outlet. It had two hours to pull off its town hall. That it worked with a high-school student to winnow his thoughts into one simple and powerful question for a Democratic senator sounds like the inverse of a scandal, despite the Tucker Carlson-informed thoughts of this country’s president:
CNN responded to Trump’s thoughts by repeating its denial.
A representative of the Haab family declined to speak on the record.
Read more by Erik Wemple: