ABC News Debate Focuses on ‘News’

ABC News Debate Focuses on ABC News hosted the Democratic debate in Philadelphia last night, with anchors Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous asking the questions. Shockingly, they selected questions on the basis of what they’ve been covering in recent days, namely Bittergate, patriotism, various campaign faux pas and countercharges, and so forth.

This has pretty much everybody except David Brooks upset. I’m with Brooks.

Greg Mitchell calls it “A Shameful Night for the U.S. Media.”

In perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years, ABC News hosts Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous focused mainly on trivial issues as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off in Philadelphia. They, and their network, should hang their collective heads in shame.

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the health care and mortgage crises, the overall state of the economy and dozens of other pressing issues had to wait for their few moments in the sun as Obama was pressed to explain his recent “bitter” gaffe and relationship with Rev. Wright (seemingly a dead issue) and not wearing a flag pin — while Clinton had to answer again for her Bosnia trip exaggerations.

Katrina vanden Heuvel terms it “A Gotcha Debate.”

It’s the relentless stream of “gotcha” questions that ABC’s top news commentators pose that have me angry, frustrated and, yes, bitter. Whether it’s George Stephanopolous pushing Obama and Clinton to make a “No New Taxes” pledge….(George–please reconnect with your inner self: the intelligent, humane guy who did good battle with Alan Greenspan and Bob Rubin in trying to stop them from putting profits before people)…Or Gibson making the leap of equating electability with Obama’s decision not to wear a flag pin? (Patriotism, as Obama explained, slowly, carefully, means ensuring that we take care of veterans who’ve served their country and done real patriotic duty.) These kinds of questions foreclose room for a full, real and honest debate about this country’s future, and its politics and policies at home and abroad.

Sam Boyd proclaims “These Questions Are a Disgrace.” Nicole Belle raises with “Attention ABC: You’re HURTING America! UPDATED with VIDEO!”

But David Brooks is right:

I understand the complaints, but I thought the questions were excellent. The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities. Almost every question tonight did that. The candidates each looked foolish at times, but that’s their own fault.

We may not like it, but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall. Remember how George H.W. Bush toured flag factories to expose Michael Dukakis. It’s legitimate to see how the candidates will respond to these sorts of symbolic issues.

I’m starting to sound like a broken record on this point but I’ll nonetheless repeat myself: Elections are not decided on “the issues.” The type of people who make detailed assessments of public policy already know who they’re going to vote for in the fall. The other 95 percent of the people vote on trust, likability, character, and such.

And, as Obama enthusiast Andrew Sullivan points out, we did actually learn something last night.

It was a lifeless, exhausted, drained and dreary Obama we saw tonight. I’ve seen it before when he is tired, but this was his worst performance yet on national television. He seemed crushed and unable to react. This is big-time politics and he’s up against the Clinton wood-chipper. But there is no disguising the fact that he wilted, painfully. Clinton has exposed herself in this campaign as one of the worst shells of a cynical pol in American politics. She doesn’t just return us to the Morris-Rove era, she represents a new height for it. If she somehow wins, it will be a triumph of the old politics in an age when that is exactly what this country cannot afford. But Obama has also shown a failure to be resilient in this grueling process. In some ways, I’m glad. No normal reasonable person subjected to the series of attacks on his integrity, faith, patriotism, decency and honesty would not wilt. And we need a normal reasonable person in the White House again. But this is still the arena we have. It is what it is. ABC News is what it is. The MSM knows no other way. Obama has to survive and even thrive under this assault if he is to win. He failed tonight in a big way.

Now, I happen to think Obama will rebound from a bad week. My sense is that he does have the character, resiliency, and energy to snap back. But the beauty of long, grueling campaigns is that we get to find out.

Furthermore, the actual policy differences between Clinton and Obama are negligible. Even their most ardent, wonky supporters aren’t claiming otherwise. Instead, they’re talking about “experience” and “electability” and the like.

Finally, if you don’t want “gotcha” questions about the kind of things that the people who watch “American Idol” find interesting, then stop hiring television journalists to host these things. Get people from think tanks, opinion magazines, and other wonkish outlets. Just don’t expect anyone to actually watch.

Photo credit: ABC News

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Finally, if you don’t want “gotcha” questions about the kind of things that the people who watch “American Idol” find interesting, then stop hiring television journalists to host these things.

    It might help if those who are now complaining about the “gotcha” questions themselves stopped leaping onto every gotcha they perceive as assisting their preferred outcome.

    I think that the critics are upset at two things. First, they don’t much care for the spectacle of two candidates from their side attacking each other and, second, they’re upset that the news media aren’t as reliable a propaganda organ as they’d like.

    I thought the debate was rather boring but, then, I’d like to see an actual debate which practically nobody would watch.

  2. Dantheman says:

    Let’s do a comparison:

    If in a Republican debate, the first hour of questions to John McCain were limited to the fact that his senior staff are nearly all registered lobbyists (with coy references to the one he was warned to stay away from), his tendency to mix up Shi’a and Sunni when discussing the Muslim world, and his wife’s former addiction to pain killers, and one of the moderators had appeared earlier that day on Rachel Maddow’s radio show, who urged him to explore these issues, would that constitute a useful debate on the “news”?

  3. Derrick says:

    Dantheman is exactly right, but let’s include a question about if McCain is too old and the Keating 5. Oh, and for fairness sake add Romney to the list and ask about whether Mormon’s are Christians, how he could have left his dog on his roof, and why his boys weren’t serving in Iraq.

    I think that Republican’s would ask for Gibson and George’s heads after a 52 minute debate performance like that and rightfully so. There should be room to ask these gotcha type questions but to spend the majority of time on questions that may have little to no impact on how either would perform as President just seems silly to me.

  4. capital L says:

    The above two commentators seem to have forgotten that the Republicans wrapped out their nomination process some time ago. The democratic candidates have had 22 (!!) debates already– should the 23rd have gone over the same things which were established around the 5th? Have a little perspective, people.

  5. Dantheman says:


    Not agreeing on the triviality of Keating 5, as it is personal corruption that McCain was actually punished for. However, I do not recall it being brought up in any of the Republican debates. Your Liberal Media at work.

    capital L,

    Since it is over 6 weeks since the last Democratic debate, a host of real news has occurred.

  6. Bithead says:

    It’s even simpler than brooks states it, James.

    At the bottom line, there isn’t enough room for water between the policies of Clinton and Obama. That’s why their arguments have been so devoid of substance.. their are no substantial differences to discuss. So what’s left to argue about? well, what they ended up arguing about last night, all of which comes down to image.

    And for that matter, since they were both exposed last night as in essense, aging 60’s radicals, how does electing either one of them amount to anything resembling “change”?

  7. Sean says:

    Something I hadn’t heard before and would like John McCain to answer someday: did former POWs really give him the nickname ‘songbird’?

  8. vnjagvet says:

    If that is the case, Sean, there will be a “POWs for Truth” 527 that will make the Swifties seem like amateurs, and no matter how many gaffes BHO and the Red Witch make, one of them will be the next President.

  9. Fence says:

    James, you may be right, but that doesn’t mean we have to say we like it, or that we shouldn’t aspire to better.

  10. Elections are not decided on “the issues.” The type of people who make detailed assessments of public policy already know who they’re going to vote for in the fall. The other 95 percent of the people vote on trust, likability, character, and such.

    General elections, James. This is a primary debate. Democratic primarygoers deserved more attention to issues.

    Besides, the questions posed didn’t address any of the issues of “trust,” “likability” or “character.”

    “Does Rev. Wright love America as much as you?” Give me a break.

  11. C.Wagener says:

    I find it strange that people feel Obama shouldn’t be questioned about associating with unrepentant terrorists and virulent racists.

    Somehow I’ve managed to live my whole life without acquiring scumbag friends like Ayers and Wright.

    McCain has won this race.

  12. Pug says:

    Does Rev. Wright love America as much as you?” Give me a break.

    Do you support the American flag? Get the hell out of here.

  13. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Here is a break for you. Ask yourself why Obama is so comfortable associating with those who hate America. Wright, his wife, William Ayers Tony Rezko, etc, etc. If he does not think the way they do, why is he associated with them. Next question. If as a senator in Illinois he sponsored some 900 bills he was given credit for, why did he vote present on about 190 of them? I don’t think America is about to elect a mystery. Do you? Oh, thats right, you know what he is. A Radical left wing communist.

  14. duckspeaker says:

    Oh, thats right, you know what he is. A Radical left wing communist.

    Ha. ha hahahahaha ha. ha. whew, that’s good stuff.

  15. Michael says:

    The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities.

    And here I thought they were supposed to disseminate information to the masses. No wonder it’s all info-tainment anymore.

  16. J.W. Hamner says:

    A couple of commenters have already pointed out why it’s base hypocrisy for Brooks and Joyner to applaud the “gotcha questions”, since they would be livid if the equivalent happened in a Republican primary debate…

    But let’s also talk about the repeated Republican frames to every “substance” question. Democratic primary voters are concerned about capital gains? For real?

    “Senator McCain, why do you want to give a giant tax break to Exxon Mobil in the guise of populism?”

    Yeah, an hour of “substance” dressed up like that wouldn’t upset James Joyner. Yeah right, try again.

  17. brandy says:

    Here is a break.
    There is no proof that Rezko hates America. He is a slumlord and a bad businessman, but stretching to call him an America Hater.
    Wright is his pastor. He is also a career Armed Forces veteran who served this country loyally. He is a pastor who has touched many lives and shared the word of God w. thousands upon thousands of faithful Christians. A Pastor is not the Church. His beliefs are not necessarily the exact same beliefs of the members. There are 8K members of that church. I do not believe the church would have grown like it did if there was hate being spewed every Sunday. GOD would not appreciate that and its doubtful to me his church would have gotten so big if there was nothing but hatred being spewed on a regular basis. Its more likely that like Obama has explained time and again the Body of the Church is why he stayed. They were a strong pillar of change in the community and he wanted to be a part of it for sure!
    Ayers! Now he hates America. Or hated, who knows another man’s heart. I can tell you this, for that thing that happened 40 yrs ago, and now this man is a political and educational figure in Chicago’s scene, makes me believe that he has been forgiven. The function of the board Obama sat on w/ him was for CHARITY!!! The other thing is that Clinton (Bill) commuted the pardon of 2 other members of that same terrorist organization. Obviously this is a nonissue that only became an issue because CLinton is behind.
    Do you have a social life? Are you involved w/ any clubs or have any memberships? If you do then you will find it difficult to know what is in the minds and hearts of every person you are social with or come across. Bottom line. The person next to you that you are friendly with at church just might be a pedophile or a drug user. You have no idea if you only see them on a limited social level.
    He voted present because as a new senator that is the only vote that counts. The only way to get an answer to that ? that will make sense to you is to look up the voting practices of new senators on google. My understanding is that when a certain bill will go one way anyways, the obligation is to AT LEAST vote present. That is a senator’s duty. Please forgive if that answer sucks. Sorry. Hope you will gain understanding from the overall points I was making though.

  18. RW Rogers says:

    I’ll bet a few of the bitter people posting here were celebrating the rough handling Clinton received at the hands of the MSNBC yokels, particularly Oct. 30 (IIRC). No, I’m not a Clinton partisan, just noting that what goes around around usually comes around. It seems to me that James has the best take on all this.

  19. ScottS says:

    Be part of the solution, or be part of the problem.

  20. C.Wagener says:


    There is a rather large difference between being friendly to a person that is unbeknown to you a pedophile and being friendly with a person you know to be a pedophile.

    I’m not so sure Ayers has been forgiven as mush as people on the far left never thought there was anything to forgive. Ayers doesn’t think he has anything to apologize for.

  21. cian says:

    Again and again the media and McCain supporters get this wrong. There is a real desire within the country for a change of direction, and that change includes the way the media has conducted itself over the past seven years. The Bittergate ‘scandal’ is a perfect example. While pundits and those on the right scream and wave their arms in horror that such a thing could be said about ordinary decent Americans, the ordinary decent Americans are inclined to agree with him, or if they don’t, they still don’t think its such a big deal. Just look at the polls.

    Like his establishment friends, James is behind the times here. Voters are wide awake and listening, and they realize that the country is in bad shape and likability just ain’t going to cut it this time.

  22. Dr. Marti Hunsucker says:

    ABC impinged its journalist integrity by employing the Clinton former Staff person, George Stephanopoulos. He was ill prepared and obviously brought his own agenda.

    I am a retired History Teacher and have long taught freedom of the press is to be as cherished as gun control is in our country, but the impropriety of not disclosing alliances of the newsman to the Clinton, and ABC tepid response to criticism of their obvious bias has discredited all mainstream news bureaus.

    When the news journalist becomes the focus of the news, real failure in broadcasting has occurred. An honest debate should leave listeners discussing issues and responses of the candidates, not focusing on the newsman. ABC needs to recognize their failure to provide a dispassionate, fair setting for their format.