GOP Debate: Did Audience Boo Gay Soldier...or His Question?

Stephen Hill (YouTube)

One of the most talked about moments from Thursday’s Republican presidential debate came after a video question from a gay soldier serving in Iraq when several boos were heard from the crowd.

In the question, directed at former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Stephen Hill asked: “Under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?”

Before Santorum responded to the question, members of the audience were heard booing. The prevailing media narrative immediately became that the audience booed a gay service member, little more than a week after the last debate when the audience seemed to cheer a man’s death.

But listen to the video carefully: The first boo isn’t heard until after Hill finishes his question — not when he introduces himself as a gay soldier, nor when he said he had to “lie about who [he] was” when he was first deployed. It sounds like the boos weren’t directed at Hill himself, but at his question.

Nevertheless, here’s a sample of the headlines that ran following the debate:

  • “Presidential debate audience members boo gay soldier; Rick Santorum would reinstate DADT” (Washington Post)
  • “Debate crowd booed gay soldier” (ABC)
  • “Gay soldier booed at GOP debate; candidates stay mum” (The Hill)
  • “Republican Debate Audience Boos Gay Soldier Stephen Hill After DADT Question” (Huffington Post)
  • “Audience Members of GOP Debate Boo Stephen Hill, Gay Soldier Serving in Iraq” (Mediaite)

At least one major news organization seemed to note the nuance: The Los Angeles Times‘ headline read, “At GOP debate, crowd boos gay soldier’s question on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

According to audience member Sarah Rumpf, there’s another problem with the way the story played: It wasn’t “the crowd” that booed, but rather one or two individuals who were quickly shushed. Rumpf wrote on her blog:

There was audible booing after his question…however, please note that it was not the crowd booing. It was only one or two people. [Emphasis hers]

I was at the debate, in the audience on the right hand side about halfway back (here’s my tweet of the video screen that was right in front of us). The person who booed was just a few rows in front of us. The booing got an immediate and angry reaction from nearly everyone sitting around him, who hissed and shushed at him. Lots of loud gasps, “Shhhh!” “No!” “Shut up, you idiot!” etc.

Santorum addressed the issue Friday with on Fox News with Megyn Kelly, including why he didn’t comment on the booing right when it happened, instead continuing with his answer.

“I have to admit I seriously did not hear those boos, and had I heard them I certainly would have commented on them,” he said, saying that he condemns the audience’s reaction. “I would have said, don’t do that, this man is serving our country and we are to thank him for his service.”

Although Santorum referred to it as “the people who booed that gay soldier,” Kelly pointed out that it was unclear whether the reaction was directed toward Hill himself or the content of his question.

Video via Fox News:


The entire episode raises a question: Audience members frequently cheer (and boo) candidates’ answers during debates — audience reaction can even be critical to a candidate’s perceived performance. Is the audience not allowed to show its discontent at a line of questioning it doesn’t like? Chris Wallace certainly got a taste of the audience’s displeasure at the GOP debate last month, after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused him of asking a “gotcha” question.

Furthermore, nearly every searchable headline on the incident refers to the crowd booing a “gay” soldier — if the audience did boo Hill, not just his question, isn’t saying they booed a member of America’s armed forces offense enough?