Election Coverage Recap: General Kerr and Election Coverage of LGBT Issues

October 30, 2008
The below post is written by Joanna Greenberg, GLAAD’s National News Associate, and Sarah Mitchell, National News Fellow.
Last November, CNN and Youtube joined forces to host a debate for the Republican presidential candidates, as they did for the Democratic candidates in June.  All of the questions for the debate were submitted via Youtube with selected video questions asked of the candidates during the live broadcast. 

One of the questions aired at the debate was submitted by retired Brigadier General Keith H. Kerr and concerned the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy.”  Brig. Gen. Kerr asked:
My name is Keith Kerr, of Santa Rosa, California. I’m a retired brigadier general with 43 years of service. And I’m a graduate of the Special Forces Officer Course, the Command and General Staff Course, and the Army War College, and I’m an openly gay man. I want to know why you think that American men and women in uniform are not professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians. 
Kerr was in the audience for the debate and when prompted by moderator Anderson Cooper, offered a follow-up comment to the candidates:
American men and women in the military are professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians. For 42 years, I wore the Army uniform on active duty, in the Reserve, and also for the state of California. I revealed I was a gay man after I retired. Today, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is destructive to our military policy. Every day, the Department of Defense discharges two people, not for misconduct, not for the unit cohesion — not for the unit cohesion that Congressman Hunter is talking about, but simply because they happen to be gay.
According to Tapped, the blog of The American Prospect, Gen. Kerr received boos from the audience as his continued his statement. General Kerr’s appearance and question immediately caused a great deal of controversy outside the debate hall after it was discovered that Kerr was a member of the LGBT Americans for Sen. Hillary Clinton steering committee and a co-chairman of Sen. Clinton’s Veterans and Military Retirees for Hillary committee. Below is a video to accompany this entire post Upon learning about his ties to these committees, CNN made an on-air apology. In an interview with John Roberts on CNN’s American Morning the next day, Kerr wasquestioned about his connections to the Clinton campaign:
ROBERTS: So there’s the question, and retired Army Brigadier General Keith Kerr joins me now this morning. We discovered after the debate last night that you are, in fact, a member of Hillary Clinton’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered steering committee. We did not — we did a background check, and we found that you have not made any campaign contributions to any candidate. Does that still stand? KERR: That’s correct. ROBERTS: OK. Well, let me ask you about your position on this steering committee. What does that entail, and have you, in fact, done any work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign? KERR: I have not done any work. Several friends asked me if I would allow my name to be listed, and I agreed because she is such a strong advocate of gay and lesbian rights. ROBERTS: So this really hasn’t required anything on your part other than lending your name to it? KERR: Correct. ROBERTS: Now, did anyone from Hillary Clinton’s campaign or from the steering committee or anyone else associated with a political organization put you up to the idea of asking this question? KERR: Absolutely not. This was a private initiative on my own.
Despite Kerr’s assurances that he was not in any way directed by the Clinton campaign, some in the media lashed out, ignoring the significance and substance of Kerr’s question and just dismissing him as a “plant.” On Fox News, Pat Buchanan attacked Kerr and made unnecessary and hurtful comments about Kerr being gay and not, while in active duty, having “courage” enough to come out:
There’s an element of fraud here. When the general did not identify himself as a fierce partisan of Hillary Rodham Clinton and presented himself simply as a military man who had served and was gay. And who obviously did not have the courage, frankly, when he was in the military to come out of the closet and say I’m gay. And to attack the Republicans for lacking the courage to take a position he was unable to take, I think makes him look rather bad.
Far right radio host Michael Savage also attacked Kerr, asserting that he must have been planted by the Clinton campaign. Savage dismissed Kerr as an “old queen”:
I don’t care about this old queen, frankly. He disgusts me to make — my flesh crawls from the old queen. That was a general? Now you wonder why we’re still in Iraq five years later. General — with General Keith Kerr, you know why we’re still in Iraq five years later.
The media, particularly Fox News, ran stories almost entirely on the issue of Kerr’s associations and what they felt was bias at CNN.  Fox alone had multiple segments throughout the next few days where they attacked CNN and projected the blame on Sen. Hillary Clinton, overlooking multiple denials from General Kerr.   What about the substance behind the answers given to Gen. Kerr’s question?  Well, substance was pretty much lost in the political crossfire. On November 29th, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough spoke about the Gen. Kerr controversy on Morning Joe and concluded that questions like Kerr’s are only brought up to “vilify the Republican party” and not out of legitimate concern. When CNN re-aired the debate for its viewers, they decided to remove the entire segment on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  When GLAAD learned of this, we contacted CNN with big concerns about the omission and asked them to include the segment going forward.  Their viewers should not be denied the chance to hear the Republican candidates’ views on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  After that conversation with GLAAD, CNN decided to reinstate that segment during subsequent re-airings. Surprisingly, it was Bill O’Reilly who finally brought up the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in a substantive manner on Fox News.  He invited Gen. Kerr onto his program, The O’Reilly Factor. Although O’Reilly distorted many of the facts surrounding the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, he did add substance to a media conversation that had been primarily focused on politics and not policy. It is important that the current candidates for President, as well as future candidates, face more questions from the media on issues that impact the LGBT community. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the consequences it has for numerous gay and lesbian service members is an especially relevant topic for discussion. The attacks on Kerr and CNN, especially those made specifically about his orientation, only distracted from the relevance of the question at hand. Viewers had and have a right to hear answers to questions related to LGBT people, regardless of who is asking the question.