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Marty Kaplan Headshot

The CNN/RubeTube Debate

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Over 4,000 Americans have submitted video questions for the candidates who have been humiliated into participating this week in the entertainment marketing scam known officially as The CNN/YouTube Republican Debate. It's bad enough that presidential aspirants of both parties are so cowed by the networks that they have ceded their dignity, not to mention our democracy, to these degrading gongshows, complete with breathless postgame analyses by the same preening interlocutors who posed as neutral referees just moments before. But the faux populism of the YouTube format is an Orwellian leap even for CNN, where anchors are already required to i.d. correspondents as "part of the best political team on television." (Every time Wolf says that, an angel is lethally injected.)

Have you looked at the questions submitted on YouTube? An astonishing number of them are heartfelt inquiries about gayness in America. Lynn and Pat Mulder of Auburndale, Florida talk about their son Ryan, who was murdered in March because he was gay; they ask the candidates what they will do to make this the kind of country where that will not happen. Former Major League baseball player Billy Bean asks whether the GOP candidates will "stop embracing religion-based bigotry against gays and lesbians." If you flip through the posted videos, it seems as though every twenty questions there's the face of a teenager talking about being born gay, a twenty-something talking about being Christian and gay, a plea about LGBT hate crimes, about the Godliness of all human love, about the depression and suicide fostered by fundamentalist preachers and their political fellow-travelers.

You could fill the entire two hours of the CNN/YouTube debate with those questions. But if the New York Times' account of how the seven-person CNN team will select the winning questions is accurate, actually you won't see a single one of them during the televised debate. David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief and executive producer of the debate, told the Times' blog The Caucus that posts "asking the candidates to defend their opposition to gay marriage" are "'lobbying grenades' [that] would be disqualified by the CNN selection team... There are quite a few things you might describe as Democratic 'gotchas,' and we are weeding those out'... CNN wants to ensure that next Wednesday's Republican event is 'a debate of their party.'"

Not only is this stunningly disrespectful to the many Log Cabin and other self-described gay Republicans who submitted YouTube questions; it's also a telling reminder of the game that CNN is really playing. Sure, their Web site says "YOU ask the questions of the candidates" ("Be original... Be personal"). But if YOU don't fit the CNN profiling division's definition of a Republican, then no matter how personal your sexual orientation may be, no matter how original you are in the way you ask it, the CNN team will yank you from the questioner pool like cyber-crabgrass.

The notion that the CNN/YouTube debate represents a grass-roots triumph of the Internet age is laughable. The 4,000+ videos are pawns; the questioners are involuntary shills, deployed by the network producers in no less deliberate, calculating and manipulative a fashion as the words and stories fed by teleprompters into anchors' mouths. If you want to see what a legitimate grass-roots online debate looks like, have a gander at 10questions.com. At that site, it's not concealed network gatekeepers who decide what citizens' questions should be censored; it's the same community who submitted them in the first place that gets to vote. What's more, they also get to vote on whether the candidates adequately answered the questions. Apparently that's too much democracy for CNN. I guess it would be way too embarrassing if part of the best political team in America turned out not to be on television at all.