This CNN Scripted Question Thing Seems Like a Whole Bunch of Nothing


Following Wednesday night’s emotionally raw CNN town hall forum that featured Parkland shooting survivors and family members of victims angrily confronting Florida lawmakers and an NRA spokesperson on guns, a damning allegation was tossed the network’s way. Parkland student Colton Haab, a 17-year-old JROTC student who heroicly shielded fellow students during the massacre, claimed CNN had tried to script questions for him.

“CNN had originally asked me to write a speech and questions, and it ended up being all scripted,” Haab told local Florida station WPLG-TV after the town hall aired. He also told the channel that he “expected to be able to ask my questions and give my opinion on my questions.”

CNN immediately denied the accusation that the forum was staged and the questions scripted, offering up the following statement:

There is absolutely no truth to this. CNN did not provide or script questions for anyone in last night’s town hall, nor have we ever. After seeing an interview with Colton Haab, we invited him to participate in our town hall along with other students and administrators from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Colton’s father withdrew his name from participation before the forum began, which we regretted but respected. We welcome Colton to join us on CNN today to discuss his views on school safety.

A CNN insider further told Mediaite that it was “evident that Haab wanted to deliver extensive remarks on the subject of arming teachers.” When told that he wouldn’t be able to recite a lengthy speech before asking his question, Haab’s father pulled him out of the event.

With Haab’s charge having turned into a full-blown controversy, especially among conservatives, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson invited the student on his program last night to detail his side of the exchange with CNN. Haab told Carlson that a CNN producer, identified as Carrie Stevenson, contacted him about appearing at the event after seeing him in some TV interviews. In one interview with Fox & Friends, Haab had stated that Aaron Feis, an assistant coach who was killed while protecting others, could have possibly stopped the shooting if he was armed.

Haab then explained the back-and-forth he had with Stevenson ahead of the town hall. According to the student, he was asked by her to “just write a speech.” After that, he stated the speech was brushed aside and instead she wanted to know what questions he’d like to ask at the town hall. Eventually, he told the Fox host, Stevenson “asked for just questions I’d like to ask.”

Haab added that Stevenson took everything he had told and provided her and wrote his question for him, leading Carlson to ask him if “they put their own words into your question?” The student confirmed they had, resulting in Carlson to conclude that it “seems dishonest.” Haab agreed with the conservative commentator as he noted it “was very upsetting” to him.

Unpacking Haab’s comments, however, seems to reveal that this truly is much ado about nothing and largely a basic misunderstanding about how networks plan out television programs, especially live events.

From what we were able to gather from a CNN source, Stevenson contacted Haab with the hopes that he could be part of the town hall and ask a question, as we saw a number of other students and community members do that night. In her following correspondence with Haab — during which the student had sent over a list of four questions he’d like to ask — Stevenson noticed one about having a class for teachers who’d be trained to carry firearms on campus.

The producer discussed this on the phone with Haab and told him he’d ask Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) that question along with providing some background on his Fox & Friends appearance. It was after this that Haab’s father intervened, stating that Haab be allowed to deliver a written speech that was laced with questions, comments and remarks. And if Haab was only allowed to ask one question, the family wouldn’t be participating in the event.

One thing that seems apparent, though, in the correspondence between Stevenson and Haab is that the CNN producer didn’t insert additional language or verbiage into any question that Haab would ask if he appeared at the town hall. The words in the question that was sent to Haab for approval came directly from him.

(This tracks with what someone at CNN has told the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple about this situation.)

Here’s the thing: CNN had a two-hour time frame in which to do this program. While the intention is obviously to allow participants to speak their mind and get the answers they want in this format, the producers still have to account for how much time each exchange will take. On top of that, there are a number of people who want to have their questions asked, and the producers and moderator figure to want to have as many as possible heard.

Looking at it from CNN’s perspective, allowing one participant to take up what would likely be a good chunk of the program’s running time, thus preventing quite a few others from taking part. Therefore, the network is in the unenviable position of editing what certain participants originally offer. In this case, rather than deliver a speech and ask a series of questions, Haab was given the option of asking one of the questions he provided CNN.

On the other hand, one can also completely understand where the Haab family was initially coming from. The 17-year-old had a lot more to say and just asking one question with some background wasn’t exactly what they were looking for at the town hall. Haab obviously has a lot of thoughts on this matter and is looking for answers and dialogue. Being presented with such a limit during an emotionally trying time can be extremely difficult. Neither he nor his family can possibly be blamed for spurning the CNN invite under those conditions.

More, though, this is a situation where once the narrative gets out there that this was a staged and scripted event, CNN’s usual critics will pounce as they smell blood. Even those fully aware of the complexities and complications that revolve around delivering a television program. And we’ve already seen how this whole thing has made its way to the president.

In the end, this is distracting from the actual discussion at hand. The subject the CNN town hall was hoping to address — mass shootings. Maybe now we can get back on topic.

Watch Haab’s interview with Carlson above, via Fox News.

UPDATE: Turns out it was a whole bunch of nothing.

[image via screengrab]

Follow Justin Baragona on Twitter: @justinbaragona

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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