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Unbalanced CNN Panel Sides With Letterman Over Palin

"The Big Question" on CNN's Campbell Brown program Thursday night dealt with CBS host David Letterman's raunchy jokes about Sarah Palin's teenage daughter, but the panel CNN assembled justified Letterman's approach, with CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin even declaring Palin's daughter was "fair game." Only ex-Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari sided with the governor.

Brown first turned to Molinari, the moderate former congresswoman from New York, for her take on the issue. She condemned Letterman's "mean joke," though she did buy the CBS host's explanation that it was about 18-year-old Bristol Palin, and not 14-year-old Willow Palin. Molinari continued that she didn't "understand how anybody thinks this was funny....he's a late-night host. He crosses the line. But when you cross the line with an 18-year-old, I just think we have gotten to the point where the jokes now are just really mean and have no impact."

The CNN anchor then asked left-wing Air America radio host Sam Seder and VH-1's Janell Snowden, "Where do you draw the line between being provocative and being offensive when you're- when you're commentating, as these guys do, on the late- night talk shows?" Seder made light of the matter: "If someone made a joke about Alex Rodriguez knocking up my daughter, I would take offense. But that's because I'm a Red Sox fan." He also defended it as a "funny joke" and justified it: "He's simply making a joke, and he's done it for years and years, and he's done it about all sorts of people, all different ages." [Audio clips from the segment available here.]

Snowden, on the other hand, first acknowledged that the late-night host "absolutely" crossed the line with his remark. But she brushed it aside to an extent as well: "Do we rely on him to [cross the line]? Absolutely. If he didn't, would we watch? Probably not. However, any decent mother would defend her daughter's honor, and I think she's doing that."

Toobin later gave his take, and zeroed in not so much on the comment directed against Palin's daughter, but another from Letterman: "I have a different view. I have a problem with the slutty line. I- I think that was in- totally inappropriate." But he then tried to defend the CBS host for his choice of target: "Let's remember, Bristol Palin has now become a national spokeswoman on this issue of unwed motherhood for teenagers. She has decided to become a public figure on this issue. She's been on all the talk shows. So, I think a joke about Bristol Palin is actually fair game. You know, if you want to be private- fine, be private. But she's not a private person anymore."

Molinari didn't buy this lawyer's argument: "I get Jeff's point that she got out there and gave a few speeches. But I think we really have to just keep in mind that she's 18 years old. We have had other political families who have had their kids go out there and speak up on issues...and we have never seen this be done before.....I think he owes every young woman out there who has gone through this same situation or single people who have had babies on their own an apology."

When Brown subsequently asked if sexism or racism was more acceptable with jokes, Snowden replied, "I don't think either is particularly acceptable. I just think that David Letterman is a comedian. It's his job to make fun of people, and when Sarah Palin- when running for vice- for the vice presidency, had a teenage daughter who became pregnant, I think she sort of became fair game for comedians everywhere." The CNN anchor followed up by inquiring, "why is Sarah Palin such an easy target?"

After Seder answered this by cracking that once the Alaska governor "opens her mouth, she helps the comedian- she goes halfway for the comedian there" (getting a laugh out of Toobin and Snowden in the process), the Air America host went so far as to even defend Letterman's "slutty" remark: "Frankly, I don't even think that- that joke was sexist, per se."

Brown's program has a record of having discussion panels lean mostly or overwhelmingly to the left. In February 2009, an entire panel praised Attorney General Eric Holder's "coward" remark during his speech on race. When Roland Martin took over for the anchor while she was on maternity leave from late March until May, he featured several panels which leaned leftward, including on the issues of evangelical Christianity, former Vice President Dick Cheney's criticism of the Obama administration, and same-sex "marriage."

The full transcript of the panel discussion, which began 8 minutes in the 8 pm Eastern hour of Thursday's Campbell Brown program:

CAMPBELL BROWN: Palin vs. Letterman: who is right here?

Joining me now to talk about this, we have Jeff Toobin, CNN senior political analyst; Janell Snowden, VH-1 news correspondent; Sam Seder, co-host of Air America's 'Break Room Live;' and, in Washington, Susan Molinari, former Republican congresswoman from New York, and senior principal in the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani. Welcome to everybody. Susan- Congresswoman, let me begin with you, because I know you have very strong feelings about this. Do you think he crossed the line?

FORMER CONGRESSWOMAN SUSAN MOLINARI: I think he did. I don't think this was a funny joke. I think it was a mean joke, and let me say I take him at his word that he thought this was a joke about an 18-year-old. But, still, this is an 18-year-old, who is 18 years old, who didn't say she wanted to run for office. Look, those of us who stand up and say I want to be vice president, I want to be congressman- you know, I want to have my own TV show, you understand that there's going to be a bit of a bullseye on you. Here's an 18-year-old girl who has gone through hell and back by standing up with her family and- and taking care of her child. And- and I just- I think, again, I don't understand how anybody thinks this was funny. I mean, I think it's just- he's a late-night host. He crosses the line. But when you cross the line with an 18-year-old, I just think we have gotten to the point where the jokes now are just really mean and have no impact.

BROWN: Well, Sam, Janell- let me get you both to comment on this. I mean, where do you- where do you- where is the line? Where do you draw the line between being provocative and being offensive when you're- when you're commentating, as these guys do, on the late- night talk shows?

SAM SEDER Well, I don't know if he's commentating. He's making a joke. But, you know, that said, I am a father, and if someone made a joke about Alex Rodriguez knocking up my daughter, I would take offense. But that's because I'm a Red Sox fan.

(off-camera laughs)

SEDER: I mean, in the final analysis- I mean, it's a joke. People laugh. He told it again last night, and people laughed again. So, it is a funny joke, and he is- he's just a late-night comedian. And so, it's not as if he's delivering political commentary. He's simply making a joke, and he's done it for- he's done it for years and years, and he's done it about all sorts of people- all different ages.

BROWN: Janell?

JANELL SNOWDEN: I agree. Did he cross the line? Absolutely. Do we rely on him to? Absolutely. If he didn't, would we watch? Probably not. However, any decent mother would defend her daughter's honor, and I think she's doing that. At the same time, of course, you have cynics who are like, oh, great, everybody is winning, because Dave is getting more and more fodder, and she's getting another 15 minutes.

BROWN: Every time she speaks out, he gives her- or she gives him more- more to work with, and we know she's going on The Today Show tomorrow morning.

SNOWDEN: Right.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: I- I- I have a different view. I have a problem with the slutty line. I- I think that was in- totally inappropriate. But- I mean, let's remember, Bristol Palin has now become a national spokeswoman on this issue of unwed motherhood for teenagers. She has decided to become a public figure on this issue. She's been on all the talk shows. So, I think a joke about Bristol Palin is actually fair game. You know, if you want to be private- fine, be private. But she's not a private person anymore.

BROWN: Susan, that's a fair point that Jeff just made. In addition to that- I mean, you have to know this, given the life you've had- I mean, kids are very much a part of the modern political campaign.

MOLINARI: Yes, they are- they are, in all- Republicans and Democrats- yeah, and I get Jeff's point that she got out there and gave a few speeches. But I think we really have to just keep in mind that she's 18 years old. We have had other political families who have had their kids go out there and speak up on issues and take positions and campaign for their mothers and fathers, and we have never seen this be done before. Again, I think the difference is the age of this young woman, who has had, you know, some pretty difficult moments in- in the glare of the camera. And, again, I mean, you know, I'm not saying he should be taken off the air. I'm just saying I don't think it was funny, I think it was mean, and I think he does owe- you know what? I think he owes every young woman out there who has gone through this same situation or single people who have had babies on their own an apology. Is it just Bristol Palin who is allowed to have these jokes? I mean, I think he's kind of framing a whole group of people out there who- who have been through the same situation and have stood pretty strong about it- not funny.

BROWN: All right. Let me also pick up on Jeff's other point, which is the comment that he found offensive, the slutty flight attendant comment. I mean, is sexism, I guess, more acceptable than racism when you're- when you're making jokes like this, in a way?

SNOWDEN: I don't think either is particularly acceptable. I just think that David Letterman is a comedian. It's his job to make fun of people, and when Sarah Palin- when running for vice- for the vice presidency, had a teenage daughter who became pregnant, I think she sort of became fair game for comedians everywhere.

BROWN: But she's always- she's been an easy- why is Sarah Palin such an easy target?

SEDER: Well, because every time she opens her mouth, she helps the comedian- she goes halfway for the comedian there.

(Toobin and Snowden laugh.)

SEDER: I mean, she- it's like tee-ball with her. It's not even softball. I mean, she just literally holds it out there, and- I mean, frankly, I don't even think that- that joke was sexist, per se. I mean, Letterman has-

TOOBIN: But- but- I mean, look- there are certain rules, I think- look, we're talking about jokes. But I don't think it's fair to say it's just a joke. You can have offensive jokes. It's not a free range- just, if you say, it's just a joke, you can say anything. It just seems to me that referring to a public figure, a woman, as a slut, it just- you know, that's a line you shouldn't cross.

SEDER: But he- but he didn't do that. He said- he talked about her slutty makeup.

TOOBIN: Slutty flight attendant.

SEDER: Well, no, but he- there is a big difference there, because he is talking about appearance, and he's made the joke-

TOOBIN: Nothing funnier than analyzing jokes word by word, you know?

SEDER: Well, exactly- exactly.

BROWN: All right.

SNOWDEN: Is she or is she not the woman who posed in a bikini? I think that she's- like Jeff said, sort of made herself fair game.

BROWN: That was a long time ago. All right, we have got to end it there- many thanks to the panel.

-Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center.