Though it's a channel that promotes itself for its dedication to hard news, CNN has been caught in an embarrassing show business maneuver.
Last week, young voters posed questions to Democratic candidates for president in the 2000 elections at a town hall event staged by CNN and Rock the Vote, a not-for-profit group advocating greater involvement of young citizens in electoral politics.
The show, which aired Nov. 4 on CNN, was conceived as "a conversation between the candidates and young America." During the program, which was taped at Boston's Faneuil Hall, Alexandra Trustman stepped up to the microphone and said: "I'm a freshman at Brown University. And going to college this year, I was confused with an important decision. My mom advised me one way, my dad the other. And so my question for you all is - and it's not quite boxers or briefs, but - Mac's, or PCs?"
Audience members then learned of the candidates' preferences, from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's personal computer, to Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman's hand-held wireless, to the Rev. Al Sharpton's playful "politically correct Mac."
But the question wasn't part of a conversation with young America at all. Trustman's question was a plant from CNN.
In a column published Monday in the Brown Daily Herald, Trustman tried to deflect her fellow students' derision. The question was dumb, they said. The question, from its topic to its formulation, was the invention of a CNN producer, she wrote.
As she recounted the episode in her column, Trustman said she was called by a CNN producer and told what to ask. When she suggested a broader query on technology, she was cut short. (Though she wrote she was frustrated that student journalists hadn't sought her perspective before criticizing her, Trustman declined to respond to messages via e-mail and telephone seeking interviews for this column.)
"He took a look at my question and told me I couldn't ask it because it wasn't lighthearted enough and they wanted to modulate the event with various types of questions - mine was to be on the lighthearted side," Trustman wrote. "The show's host [CNN's Anderson Cooper] wanted the Macs or PCs question asked, not because he was wondering about the candidates' views of technology, but because he thought it would be a good opportunity for the candidates to relate to a younger audience."
She continued: "At this point it was clear to me that the question would be asked regardless of whether I was the person to ask it. ... [T]he opportunity to be involved in Rock the Vote outweighed any criticism I thought would come from the question."
Though Trustman described the staffer as the event's executive producer, a CNN spokeswoman says it was in fact another producer, whom she declined to name.
"Our intention was to produce a forum where young voters could ask questions to the candidates directly and that those questions would come from those individuals in the audience," says Christa Robinson, spokeswoman for CNN. "In an attempt to encourage a light-hearted moment within this debate, the producer clearly went too far. CNN regrets the producer's actions."
She said the news channel has since rechecked all other questions from the debate to verify they matched those submitted by prospective participants. But CNN did not address whether the question was devised by Cooper, as Trustman's column indicated.
"It was a mistake," says Hans Riemer, Washington director of Rock the Vote. "They pushed it too far."
Riemer expressed concern that the CNN producer's gaffe would distract attention from what he characterized as the event's success in forcing the major candidates to consider issues important to young voters. Young Americans, who vote in comparatively low numbers, make up an as-yet untapped resource and a discouragingly difficult group for candidates to reach. (Major television networks want to attract the same demographic group - hence CNN's partnership with Rock the Vote. )
In 1994, President Bill Clinton, appearing on an MTV forum with similar aims, was confronted with this question: "Mr. President, the world's dying to know - is it boxers or briefs?"
The event illustrated how far society has moved in nine years. Clinton was seen as unpresidential for even entertaining the question. This time around candidates were asked about marijuana. One person asked candidates which of their rivals they'd like to party with: "If you get sick, who's going to hold your hair back?"