The game plan followed by ABC News moderators Charles Gibson, left, and George Stephanopoulos at Wednesday night's debate came under fire from many quarters.
By L.A. Johnson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday's debate wasn't Sen. Barack Obama's best performance, but the big losers in Philadelphia the other night were ABC News, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.
The debate outraged many media types, pundits and regular Joe and Jane voters who yesterday decried and just plain bashed the moderators, Mr. Gibson and Mr. Stephanopoulos, and the questions they posed to the Democratic presidential candidates.
"Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos turned in shoddy, despicable performances," Washington Post Style columnist Tom Shales said yesterday. "For the first 52 minutes of the two-hour, commercial-crammed show, Gibson and Stephanopoulos dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news."
Old issues resurrected included questions about Mr. Obama's fiery and controversial preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; his comments about bitterness in small towns; and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's imagined Bosnia sniper-fire ordeal.
Debate critics also charged that some questions -- such as why doesn't Mr. Obama wear a flag pin and whether he is a friend of former Weather Underground member and bomb-throwing anarchist William Ayers -- were flimsy and irrelevant to the real concerns of the American people.
"Was this really a debate? It was more like an hour-long attack ad for the Republicans," said Nancy Ott, of Aspinwall, in a post-gazette.com forum. "I don't care about Hillary Clinton's excellent Bosnia adventure. I don't care about Barack Obama's pastor. I really, really, really don't care what kind of lapel pin Obama [or, for that matter, Clinton] wears."
Ms. Ott wanted discussion of the serious problems facing the country -- good exit strategies for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plans to revive the country's flagging economy and reduce skyrocketing energy costs, ways to curb health-care costs and improve environmental protection policies.
"Did we hear much about these issues during the debate? No," she said. "... However, we did hear a lot about some dude Obama knows who was once a member of the Weather Underground."
Wednesday's debate -- to date, the most-watched in the 2008 presidential campaign -- drew 10.7 million viewers to ABC, Nielsen Media Research reported. The first hour ranked No. 1 in its time period while the 9 p.m. hour came in second to Fox's "American Idol." Locally, the debate on WTAE averaged 118,000 viewers, winning the 8 p.m. hour and landing in second place at 9 p.m. behind "Criminal Minds" on KDKA but ahead of "American Idol" on WPGH.
Although the debate generally received more criticism than praise, David Brooks, in his Campaign Stops blog for The New York Times Wednesday night, lauded ABC News.
"I understand the complaints, but I thought the questions were excellent," he said. "The journalist's job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities.
"We may not like it, but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall," Mr. Brooks wrote.
For its part, ABC News was proud of its effort.
"We thought the debate was excellent, substantive, probing and interesting and I have no doubt that there are people who have strong opinions on both sides," said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News. "We see our job to ask probing, tough questions and that's exactly what we did."
Will Bunch, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist, couldn't disagree more. After the debate Wednesday night, in an open letter to Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, he wrote:
"With your performance tonight -- your focus on issues that were at best trivial wastes of valuable airtime and at worst restatements of right-wing falsehoods, punctuated by inane 'issue' questions that in no way resembled the real world concerns of American voters -- you disgraced my profession of journalism, and, by association, me and a lot of hard-working colleagues who do still try to ferret out the truth rather than worry about who can give us the best deal on our capital gains taxes."
However, not everyone hated the debate. In the comments section of Mr. Shales' column someone wrote:
"ABC did a great job making Obama answere[sic] some hard questions that he will face in the fall if he gets the nomination," a person identified only as mehuwss wrote. "Unfortunately for all his supporters, Obama's showing was extraordinarily weak. Hillary looked like a winner!"
In comments to The New York Times Opinionator blog, which yesterday highlighted the pounding the debate received from columnists around the country, someone identified as Cicero, said quite sarcastically: "No points for being gracious, Obama. You didn't play the game. Last night you should have jumped on the fact that Hillary basically said she lied about the Bosnian trip. But no, you have to take the high road. While it's no part of a gentleman to make war on a lady (Andrew Jackson), HRC ain't no lady, she's a gun-toting, whiskey-swigging Miss Kitty."
"I think this was one of the worst debates in history and I'm 67 years old," said Darlene Zelechowski, of Muskego, Wis. "... I had respect for Charlie [but] he has become a poor excuse for a journalist. George should have never been a commentator, being with the Clinton administration."
Mr. Stephanopoulos was a senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton before joining ABC News as an analyst on "This Week" in 2007. He now moderates the program.
"It was hard to tell if that was George Stephanopoulos or [Fox News'] Sean Hannity asking Senator Obama if Reverend Jeremiah Wright 'loves America as much as you do?' " said Chris Schultz, 30, of Mt. Lebanon, who is running as an Obama delegate from the 18th Congressional district. "Isn't it ironic that George Stephanopoulos was on Sean Hannity's radio show the day before taking notes on potential debate questions proposed by Sean Hannity himself?"
Teddy Carroll labeled the debate a "shame-fest" that didn't teach the public anything about the candidates.
"Apparently, intellectually lazy tabloid journalism is what passes for a debate at ABC News," said Mr. Carroll, 38, of Braddock Hills in a post to the post-gazette.com forum.
"Would ABC have us believe that the first forty-five minutes of the debate was simply to show what it would be like for Senator Obama when the Republicans begin their attack campaign?" he said. "If so, it's a pretty thin excuse for a hatchet job."
Many viewed the debate as biased against Mr. Obama, from the questions posed to the very staging of the event.
"They had a light on Chelsea [Clinton] and cut to Gen. [Wesley] Clark in the audience, and every time they had Obama on they searched the audience for the first black person they could find," Mr. Carroll said.
ABC's presentation of the debate proves why so many Americans are running away from mainstream media, he added.
"What happened [Wednesday] night goes beyond outrage about my candidate being treated poorly," he said. "Journalism was treated poorly, and we all should be upset about that."