A week after a school shooting in Florida left 17 people dead, CNN aired a riveting town-hall event moderated by Philly native Jake Tapper that featured members of the Parkland community confronting politicians and stakeholders about what could be done to protect schools from future attacks.
But there was a survivor absent from the event — 17-year-old Colton Haab, who told WPLG-TV Wednesday night, "CNN had originally asked me to write a speech and questions, and it ended up being all scripted." On Thursday night, Haab appeared on Fox News, telling host Tucker Carlson that he decided to skip the town hall after a CNN producer rewrote one of his submitted questions.
"Originally I had thought that it was going to be more of my own question and my own say, and then it turned out to be more of just a script," Haab said. "And she had actually said that over the phone that I needed to stick to the script."
CNN has vehemently denied Haab's claims. Emails between the Haab family and the network, obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News, show that CNN's actions have been mischaracterized by right-wing media outlets and President Trump, who used the controversy to once again label CNN "fake news." The emails reveal a producer attempting to help Haab center his question around the topic of letting trained teachers carry guns, not trying to change his point of view.
Haab, a Junior ROTC member who was hailed as a hero for shielding his classmates using kevlar sheets, was contacted by CNN to participate in the town hall after appearing in numerous television interviews, including one on Fox & Friends in which he said, "If Coach [Aaron] Feis had had his firearm in school that day, I believe that he could've most likely stopped the threat." Feis died in the attack.
Haab provided CNN with a list of four questions he wanted to ask during the town hall. A producer said the list needed to be pared down to just one due to time constraints and the format of the event, according to the emails. Haab's father also emailed the producer a three-page, 700-word speech he wanted his son to give, which also didn't fit with the constraints of CNN's broadcast.
Ultimately, the producer suggested Haab "stick" with a question the two had discussed on the phone, which simply added comments the student made on Fox & Friends to one of his proposed questions. The wording for that question would have been: "Senator Nelson, if Coach Feis had had his firearm in school that day, I believe that he could have most likely stopped the threat. Have we thought about having a class for teachers who are willing to be armed trained to carry on campus?"
The suggestion prompted a strong response from Haab's father, who pulled his son out of the town call and told CNN in an email, "We are not actors nor do we read from a script."
"Colton's father withdrew his name from participation before the forum began, which we regretted but respected," CNN said in a statement on Thursday. "We welcome Colton to join us on CNN today to discuss his views on school safety."
But the takeaway for many conservative news outlets and pundits appeared to be that CNN tried to alter Haab's question in an attempt to promote a gun-control agenda, something the emails show didn't happen. "Parkland student: CNN gave me 'scripted' questions on guns" is the headline the Washington Examiner went with, while the right-wing news website Breitbart published, "Parkland Student's Father Says CNN Only Interested in 'Certain Narrative.' " Gateway Pundit, which has been provided White House credentials despite regularly peddling baseless conspiracy theories, used, "CNN Refused to Allow Florida Shooting Hero Colton Haab to Ask Questions at Town Hall That Didn't Fit Their Narrative."