CNN and its allies in the media are trying defend the network in a dispute with a Florida school shooting survivor who refused to attend the town hall this week, because he said it was “scripted.” The defense isn’t making the network look any better.
Colton Haab, the student CNN is calling a liar, is one of the heroes of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Haab is a Junior ROTC enlistee who led dozens of students into a more secure classroom during the shooting and then set up Kevlar screens to shield them from bullets. He and another student then armed themselves with a two-by-four and a fire extinguisher and guarded the door to the classroom.
Haab was planning to participate in a town hall event for survivors CNN hosted this week, but says he decided not to attend when a producer rejected his planned statements and questions and instead gave him a “scripted” question. CNN released a statement disputing his account the next morning, and then doubled down after President Trump publicly took his side and other outlets picked up the story. “There is absolutely no truth to this,” the network has said repeatedly.
Haab elaborated on his story in a follow up interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. He said a CNN producer reached out to him ahead of the town hall and asked him to write a speech. “I felt like it would be the right thing to do,” he said. “Be able to speak my part as well as open eyes to a few things that I thought can make this situation a little better.”
The producer responded to his speech with a request for more questions, so he wrote less of a speech and submitted a few questions he wanted to ask at the town hall. The next day she wanted more questions, so he sent in more ideas. Then he reached out to the producer, and she provided him with what he described as a question written out for him by the network.
“They had taken what I had wrote and what I had briefed on and talked about and they actually wrote the question for me,” he told Carlson, who interrupted: “But not with your words, I mean they put their own words into your question?”
“Absolutely,” Haab replied, adding: “She had actually said over the phone that I needed to stick to the script.”
After Trump sided with Haab in a tweet Friday morning, CNN replied, saying the network could “prove” there is “no truth” to his story, CNN’s Drew Griffin reiterated the claim Haab is a liar. But there are plenty of indications the event was highly scripted. Moderator Jake Tapper acknowledged the script when he informed one of the students she was attacking the wrong person with her question. “Was the the blood of my classmates and my teachers worth your blood money?” the student had asked.
Tapper, a former gun control spokesman, immediately jumped to Nelson’s defense: “Senator Nelson, you don’t have to answer that question. Let’s move on to the next question.” The crowd jeered, and the student was not happy. “Excuse me? I’m a student. I should –”
“I understand that,” Tapper interrupted. “But your question, I thought you were going to ask Senator Nelson a question. Your question sounds like you want to ask Dana Loesch a question in the next segment. And I’m happy to do that, if you want.”
Loesch’s husband Chris also addressed the scripted nature of the event at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “The questions were chosen in advance. That was obvious because they were able to hand the microphone to the next person that was going to speak or ask a question.”
The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple leapt to CNN’s defense in a column Friday that attempts to spin the “scripted” narrative on its head. Wemple casts CNN as the victim of a conspiratorial conservative media, and Haab as a student who is just overreacting to a “perfectly thorough and professional” attempt to make his question more “powerful.”
CNN “had two hours to pull off its town hall,” he wrote. “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 …”
A source inside CNN provided Wemple with a version of events strikingly similar to Haab’s account. The source concedes Haab’s initial essay was narrowed down to a question provided to him by the network, but says it was a rephrasing of Haab’s own thoughts, rather than a brand new script. CNN released emails late Friday indicating this may be the case.
Maybe it’s fair to blur the line a bit between handing Haab a “scripted question” and helping him refine his own thoughts in such a way as to make the event run smoothly. As Wemple notes, this kind of thing is not unusual for town halls or debates.
Even so, CNN’s assertion there is “absolutely no truth to this story” regarding Haab’s account is overly aggressive given the circumstances and obviously false. And the network allowed other students to give monologues in addition to their question, so it appears they either truly lost control of the town hall, or they were applying a different standard to Haab, who wanted to ask a question out of sync with an anti-gun narrative. The facts here clearly aren’t as simple as CNN claims.
And let’s keep the wider context in mind. CNN is part of an army of media outlets eagerly exploiting the trauma of these kids for ratings and to push their political end of more gun control. The network gathered hundreds of grieving families likely still in shock over horrific violence that happened days earlier into one room, and gave them a couple of human punching bags.
Dana Loesch, who braved the crowd on behalf of the NRA, described the atmosphere as that of a WWE match.
They had music that was playing. They had montages that they were flashing across the screen. They had a number of speakers … Then they brought the politicians out … and that was the first hour. After all of this was already happening, after emotions were already running high, and after CNN put everyone together and cranked up, really trying to wind people up even more. …
It was even weird the way they had us walk out because it was like entering like you were a boxer or like WWE. You were walking up to the stage and they had music playing. You had to walk in aisles with all these people screaming and you had to walk toward the stage. That’s how you entered.
There was no control. It just went on forever and ever.
This town hall was a theatrical production with the clear aim of advancing an anti-gun narrative, so it’s not hard to believe the network was prompting and even scripting questions. And the public could be forgiven for trusting the word of Haab over CNN, a network that is losing credibility in the Trump era, as its reporters continue to churn out misleading, mistaken and flat out false reports at an astonishing rate. Wemple’s defense really isn’t doing much to help the network here.
And regardless of what happened, the network’s decision to label Haab a liar because of the way he interpreted the back and forth is a bad look, although it’s not the first time the network has intimidated or bullied an innocent American.
Just this past week CNN sent a reporter to an elderly lady’s front lawn to confront her about her role in Russian election meddling — because she reposted something on Facebook. This is the network that threatened to publicly shame someone who made a viral internet meme mocking the network, unless he issued a proper apology and repented of his wrongs.
Tapper said he deliberately chose not to exercise control over the town hall the way he would in other situations, because he didn’t want to trample all over someone who just lost a loved one. Where is that regard in the network’s treatment of Haab?
“Normally at a debate or a town hall, I would be quick to say to someone ‘That was rude’ or ‘We’re going to try to keep it civil here,’ or ‘Let’s not have personal attacks,’” Tapper told Variety. “But in this situation, who am I to tell someone that just lost a daughter or a friend, ‘Don’t talk that way’?”
Apparently, the kids and parents on the “right” political side of the narrative are to be believed, respected, and their voices amplified. But it’s open season on those who don’t fall in line, even Haab, who bravely defended his classmates.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect emails CNN released to Wemple late Friday purporting to show that a doctored version of the exchange between Haab and the network has been circulating in the press. One version of the email provided by CNN provides Haab with a question the network says is based on what “he submitted,” while another email CNN says it was asked to comment on does not.