That CNN "scripted town hall" question just became more complicated

On Thursday morning I wrote about the mess that erupted over CNN’s Florida town hall following the school shooting there and the claims by one of the students, Colton Haab, that CNN had “scripted” the questions and wouldn’t allow him to say what he wanted. At the time, I observed that we had something of a he said/she said situation going on between a CNN producer and Haab’s family. It was my conclusion (or at least hope) that this would probably come down to a simple case of miscommunication which could be straightened out in due course.

Just goes to show how wrong you can be.

Colton’s father stuck to his guns, claiming on Fox News that CNN definitely wanted to script his son’s question. For their part, the network continued to insist that they had used material Colton submitted but had asked him to limit his participation to one question (like the rest of the people scheduled to speak) for time considerations. The Haab family produced an email from CNN producer Carrie Stevenson which seemed to support their claims. But as the Hill reported yesterday, CNN turned around and released the same email. The two did not match in one critical way.

The Haabs’ also appeared to provide doctored emails to media outlets to back up the claim that CNN scripted the questions, Business Insider reported. CNN’s version of the email showed that the producer wrote she wanted the student to stick to a question “that he submitted,” but that phrase was omitted in the version released by the family.

“The family of a Parkland shooting survivor appears to have provided doctored emails to Fox and HuffPost in an attempt to support their claim that CNN “scripted” its Wednesday town hall.”
— Eliza Relman (@eliza_relman)

“It is unfortunate that an effort to discredit CNN and the town hall with doctored emails has taken any attention away from the purpose of the event,” a CNN spokesman said, according to Business Insider.

“However, when presented with doctored email exchanges, we felt the need to set the record straight.”

You can see the two versions of the email in this tweet.

So that one line has been changed. In CNN’s version, it reads, “This is what Colton and I discussed on the phone that he submitted. He needs to stick to this.”

But the one provided by Glenn Haab reads, “This is what Colton and I discussed on the phone. He needs to stick to this.”

As you can see, the phrase “that he submitted” is missing from the version that the Haabs provided to Huffington Post and Fox News. It was sent in an MS Word document and according to Business Insider, the metadata for the file indicates that it was last edited by Glenn Haab. That doesn’t definitively prove anything, of course. He likely copy pasted his email into the document to send it to them so as the author he would show up as the last one to edit it. Or it might have been his son or someone else in the family just using his laptop. Questions about those details have not yet been answered by the Haab family as far as I can tell.

So somebody doctored the email and the change, while minor, completely alters the narrative under discussion. Who do we believe? At first glance, you might be tempted to think that the key phrase looks a bit out of place. Tacking “that he submitted” on the end of that sentence is awkward writing at best. You’d think a professional writer would have crafted something more along the lines of, “This is way too long. Here’s what Colton submitted that he and I discussed on the phone. He needs to stick to this.” So did CNN add that one phrase to bolster their case?

Sorry, but that just seems like a bridge too far. Producers are not necessarily professional writers and perhaps she was just dashing off notes in a hurry. The point is that the original email exists somewhere on the servers of both CNN and the Haab family’s provider. Would the network really risk something this ham-handed just to cover up a story like this if it could later be revealed as being bogus? Possible, but as I said, it’s a stretch. And why would Glenn Haab send the full email in a Word document if he was emailing it to Fox and HuffPo?

Sadly, the alternative is to think that the Haabs are bending the truth just to try to discredit CNN. Going after one of the survivors of the shooting is distasteful enough, though I suppose it’s possible that the father might have done it rather than the son. The whole thing stinks at this point and leaves even more questions surrounding a subject which is already ripping open fresh wounds around the country.