CNN: The Most Trusted Name In Picking Favorites

Lynn Sweet couldn't help but notice the curious way CNN had elected to position the candidates on stage for last night's YouTube Debate: frontrunners to the center, Dodd and Biden on either side, Dennis Kucinich at the far left (as noted by Anderson Cooper) and Mike Gravel as close to somewhere else on the grounds of The Citadel as they could get him. This was, as Sweet noted, "by design, not coincidence." Sweet noted that CNN did allow for the campaigns to vote on a rule change that would mandate a random seating assignment, but predictably, this didn't happen. CNN's political director Sam Feist justified the positioning, saying that viewers would benefit from Obama and Clinton taking center stage because "would be the ones questioned by the other candidates and challenged and attacked." Yes, but by people from the edges. Excepting Edwards' quip about Clinton's coat, anyway.

John Edwards said he didn't much care where he stood on stage (a spokesman said, "He cares where he stands on the issues.") but he didn't make any effort to volunteer to swap places, and CNN more or less followed that lead. They had the power to equalize everyone's standing at the debate, but largely didn't bother to do so. As you can see above, Chris Dodd's campaign kept track of the time each candidate got to speak, and the kids at center stage commanded the airwaves. Clinton, Edwards and Obama combined to occupy 38:07 of air time, whilst the five also-rans managed only 35:13.

This disparity was even more recognizable if you tally up the number of times each candidate was offered the chance to answer a question. My informal tally, based on CNN's transcript and excluding interjections, interruptions, discussions of Chris Dodd's hair, and the Romper Room nonsense question at the end (and which includes all follow-ups on a single question as one response), comes out like so:

Obama: 19
Edwards: 14
Clinton: 15
Dodd: 11
Richardson: 11
Biden: 11
Kucinich: 9
Gravel: 9

Worth noting: Bill Richardson did not get to speak until the sixth question, after Dodd's campaign video was shown.

Nevertheless, you have to feel sorry for Mike Gravel. Nine questions, just over four minutes of screen time. Yes, we know he's out there on the fringe, but you can't help but wonder if CNN's refusal to give him the rope he needed to hang himself stemmed from a worry that he might use it to climb above the pack instead. Curiously, while Cooper at times exerted his authority to keep candidates from going over their time, he was unusually insistent where Gravel was concerned. The rest of the field more often got Cooper, in sotto voce, repeating the word "Time." Maybe CNN was worried Gravel would give away the ending to Harry Potter or something.

Lynn Sweet: The Scoop from Washington [Sun-Times]
CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate transcript [CNN]