ABC News Debate Focuses on ‘News’
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.
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.
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