By: Greg Mitchell
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 on Wednesday night.
Criticism of the network raged Thursday and Friday across news sites, blogs and in print. ABC News responded with a segment entitled “The Debate Over the Debate,” but did not offer any self-criticism. Stephanopolous did say the order of the questions maybe could have been better.
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 until the midway point 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.
Then it was back to Obama to defend his slim association with a former ’60s radical — a question that came out of rightwing talk radio and Sean Hannity on TV, but delivered by former Bill Clinton aide Stephanopolous. This approach led to a claim that Clinton’s husband pardoned two other ’60s radicals. And so on.
More time was spent on all of this than segments on getting out of Iraq and keeping people from losing their homes and other key issues. Gibson only got excited when he complained about anyone daring to raise taxes on his capital gains.
Yet neither candidate had the courage to ask the moderators to turn to those far more important issues. But some in the crowd did — booing Gibson near the end.
Yet David Brooks’ review at The New York Times concluded: “I thought the questions were excellent.” He gave ABC an “A.”
But Tom Shales of The Washington Post had an opposite view: “Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, turned in shoddy, despicable performances.” Walter Shapiro, the former USA Today political writer, declared in Salon, “Broadcast to a prime-time network audience on ABC and devoid of a single policy question during its opening 50 minutes, the debate easily could have convinced the uninitiated that American politics has all the substance of a Beavis and Butt-Head marathon.”
Greg Mitchell is author of the new book, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.” It features a preface by Bruce Springsteen and a foreword by Joe Galloway, and has been hailed by Bill Moyers, Glenn Greenwald and many others.