Saturday, April 19, 2008

Dreadful ABC debate likely last in series

(Originally published 4/19/08)

Are the news networks just trying to out-awful each other when it comes to presidential debates?

ABC started Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate from Philadelphia in negative territory for its ill-advised and poorly considered decision to allow “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos to co-moderate with Charlie Gibson.

Stephanopoulos, of course, was a senior adviser to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and served as communications director during his first administration.

Unfortunately for ABC (and the 10.7 million Americans watching), the beginning was the high point.

For all their strained efforts to nail the candidates on something – anything –Gibson and Stephanopoulos squandered the tremendous opportunity made possible by huge ratings by focusing on old issues, innuendo and the latest recapitulation of old Internet rumors before mentioning those other campaign issues: Iraq and the economy.

Washington Post pundit Tom Shales said the two “turned in shoddy, despicable performances;” Philadelphia Daily News writer Will Bunch said they “disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself;” Editor and Publisher’s Greg Mitchell said it was “perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate this year.”


According to the Associated Press, by midafternoon Thursday, ABC News’ web site had drawn more than 15,600 comments, with negative comments outnumbering positive ones eight to one.

Responding to the criticism, Stephanopoulos sounded like Saddam Hussein’s information minister, who repeatedly insisted, “There are no American soldiers in Baghdad:”

“The questions were tough and fair and appropriate and relevant,” Stephanopoulos told the AP.

Well, maybe if relevance is relative. Compared to what the candidates think of, say, the New Kids on the Block reunion, the questions were relevant. But compared to the things that were not asked at all – like what they think about Jimmy Carter’s current trip to the Middle East to meet with Hamas leaders, the skyrocketing cost of oil or their ideas on what the role of the federal government should be in the church-vs.-state battle being played out in West Texas between state officials and a polygamous cult – I’d say Stephanopoulos was stretching the definition of “relevant” a bit.

As Gibson and Stephanopoulos questioned Barack Obama about Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers (and if you’re thinking, “Who?” you’ve demonstrated the point), so could they have asked Clinton about disgraced Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu, jailed on charges of strong-arming campaign contributions for her, or former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, known among GOP hacks as “Sandy Burglar” for his theft of highly classified documents from the National Archives.

“It is clear that, as leaders, we have a choice who we associate with and who we apparently give some kind of seal of approval to,” Clinton said in debate Wednesday.

Apparently, that’s true for everyone except Hillary Clinton.

And so, as the long-awaited Pennsylvania primary rolls around Tuesday and rescues politicos from six weeks of manufactured news purgatory, we may have seen the last Democratic debate of the 2008 campaign: The inherent advantage his oratorical ability gives him in debate notwithstanding, Obama now says that the 21 debates Democrats have had are enough. Given Wednesday’s debacle, it’s no surprise.

Here’s hoping that the general election season will somehow provide voters with the miracle of hearing from their candidates in debate without the distraction of bumbling, stumbling middlemen muddying the water.

On the blog this weekend, more about gas prices and the fan club for that Iraqi information minister (yes, there really is one!).

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