Pitfalls of planted questions

Did someone from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s team plant a question during an event in Iowa last week — and if so, who did it and why? That’s the mystery keeping all of political Washington agog and dogging what has until now been an almost flawless execution of a presidential primary campaign.

Was the senator herself involved? Highly dubious. Did a dumb, inexperienced staffer ask a college kid to pitch a predictable sop of a question? Likely. Or worse, could it have been planted by a seasoned political operative? Dumber than dumb. And unnecessary.

Will it damage the senator’s campaign in noticeable fashion, like causing a precipitous drop in her tracking numbers? We don’t yet know.

Here’s how CNN, which did not break the story but nailed down the first national TV interview with the student, described the tale. A 19-year-old Grinnell College sophomore named Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff says she was approached by a “senior” Clinton staffer. The staffer asked if she would like to pose a question to the senator about energy policy following Clinton’s tour of a biodiesel plant on Nov. 6. Gallo-Chasanoff said she’d like to ask Clinton how her plan compared with those of the other Democratic candidates. The staffer responded that it wouldn’t be a great idea, since Clinton might not be familiar with her opponents’ energy plans.

Instead, this staffer allegedly pulled out a binder and opened it to a page that Gallo-Chasanoff said sported a handful of questions, with one labeled “college student.” She was told to ask: “As a young person, I’m worried about the long-term effects of global warming. How does your plan combat climate change?”

Sad, sad, sad. First, there’s the obvious blunder. The Bush administration has polished to a high art the act of staging news events, questions and answers and selling propaganda to the American public as if it were news. Does the Clinton campaign find this an admirable trait?

Several Bush incidents come to mind.

The most recent occurred during last month’s California wildfires, when the deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency staged a news conference (carried in part by Fox News) in which political hacks posed as reporters asking questions. Even, The Washington Post reports, the deputy director of external affairs and the deputy director of public affairs pretended to be members of the media. How slimy!

Then there was the Government Accountability Office finding in 2005 that Bushistas violated “covert propaganda” laws by paying conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind Act in his writing and in TV appearances.

And will we ever forget the scandal about government-funded video news releases in which other Bush PR maestros fed pre-produced propaganda and spin to local TV stations as if they were real news packages about administration education policy? Some of these actually aired. How Machiavellian.

Is this behavior Clinton’s team wishes to emulate? Of course not. The requisite explanations and promises it will never happen again were immediately issued after the story broke.

But this question remains unanswered: Do Clinton staffers actually think she’s neither smart enough nor quick enough on her feet to respond to the question Gallo-Chasanoff wanted to ask? If so, that’s pitiful. An offhand “I’m not following every detail of my opponents’ plans, but here’s what mine does” would do just fine.

Sadder still is the fact political campaigns have become so manipulated and pre-packaged that American voters never get a telling glimpse of who the candidates really are. We see the distortion that professional public-relations spin-masters want us to see. That is the only plausible reason why this country placed George W. Bush in the White House, not only once, but twice.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)

One Response to "Pitfalls of planted questions"

  1. adb8917  November 15, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    Ms. Erbe is a late-comer to the game, otherwise she’d know that the issue of “planted” questions is a time honored practice on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and is freely practiced by both parties. The next time she covers a hearing, have her explore with the witnesses and committee staff how many of the sitting member’s questions were developed in advance and carefully vetted with affected interest groups.

    The cardinal rule of politics and courthouses is that you never ask a question that you can’t already answer. This isn’t about inept or even cynical manipulation of the process. It’s the way American “democracy” works; and it’s why there won’t be any breakthroughs or new information generated during the candidate’s debates.

    ADB

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