Though it won’t happen, one wishes that as a result of ABC’s complete mangling of the so called debate that the controversy would serve as a catalyst for an overhaul of the debate’s format.
Imagine debates that included third party and independent candidates. Imagine debates that were not moderated by corporate media talking heads but instead by independent journalists asking questions of substance and addressing real issues. Imagine debates that were not controlled and organized by the two corporate parties as they are now.
ABC’s Debate Debacle
Trivia and biased questions dominate Democrats’ debate
The ABC-sponsored Democratic debate in Philadelphia on April 16 emphasized trivial matters of little concern to voters, while the actual policy questions were often based on misleading right-wing spin.
During the first half of the debate, ABC moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson avoided any mention of policy issues. As the Los Angeles Times noted (4/17/08), “With the moderators and Clinton raising assorted questions about Obama’s past for the first half of the debate, issues received relatively short shrift. Not until 50 minutes in was a policy issue– Iraq–asked about by the moderators.”
The trivial line of questioning touched on well-worn campaign non-issues: Clinton’s gaffe about Bosnia, Obama’s recent characterizations about “bitter” small-town voters, the rhetoric of his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and the fact that Obama rarely wears an American flag pin on his lapel. (This is not the first time ABC has seemed unusually interested in this distraction–see FAIR Media Advisory, 10/10/07.)
Perhaps the most irrelevant line of questioning came when Stephanopoulos asked about Obama’s contacts with University of Illinois at Chicago professor William Ayers, who was once a member of the radical Weather Underground group. Obama’s “ties” to Ayers have been an obsession of Fox News host Sean Hannity, who reportedly pressed Stephanopoulos to ask about Ayers at the debate (Salon.com, 4/17/08; MSNBC 4/16/08).
Framing the question as a “follow up” on “the general theme of patriotism,” Stephanopoulos challenged Obama to “explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem,” given that Ayers had never apologized for the bombings the group carried out in the 1970s. “In fact,” said Stephanopoulos, “on 9/11 he was quoted in the New York Times saying, ‘I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.'” (Actually, that quote appeared in the Times on September 11, 2001; it was not, as Stephanopoulos seemed to imply, made on the day of the attacks.)
But even when the questions turned to issues of actual substance, things hardly improved. It was not until a full three quarters of an hour into the debate that the candidates were asked the question about what Stephanopoulos acknowledged was “the No. 1 issue on Americans’ minds”– the economy.
Stephanopoulos’ first question to Clinton, though, was clearly pitched from the right:
“Can you make an absolute, read-my-lips pledge that there will be no tax increases of any kind for anyone earning under $200,000 a year? And if the economy is as weak a year from now as it is today, will you persist in your plans to roll back President Bush’s tax cuts for wealthier Americans?”
The assumption would seem to be that there’s something economically or politically dangerous about raising taxes, particularly on the wealthy. Charles Gibson picked up on that theme, pressing Obama about his plan to raise capital gains tax rates to levels of the early 1990s—a position that struck Gibson as bizarre, since lowering these taxes increases government revenue:
“In each instance, when the rate dropped, revenues from the tax increased. The government took in more money. And in the 1980s, when the tax was increased to 28 percent, the revenues went down. So why raise it at all, especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?”
This question rests on two false assumptions. The capital gains tax is paid by a small percentage of the population. As Citizens for Tax Justice pointed out (3/16/06), “The wealthiest 10 percent of taxpayers enjoyed 90 percent of the capital gains eligible for this special tax break.” Gibson’s reference to the 100 million Americans who own stock is irrelevant, since this tax is applied to the sales of stocks and real estate—not the act of having a retirement account.
Gibson’s other point–“History shows that when you drop the capital gains tax, the revenues go up”–might be popular in certain conservative circles, but the evidence to support it is thin. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out (7/12/07), there is little causal relationship between the capital gains tax cuts and increased federal tax revenue. Economist Jason Furman of the Brookings Institute pointed out the the “Joint Committee on Taxation and Treasury both score raising capital gains taxes as raising revenues” (New Republic, 4/16/08).
In addition, both candidates were pressed by Stephanopoulos about whether they would “treat an Iranian attack on Israel as if it were an attack on the United States.” Stephanopoulos opened this question with a flagrantly misleading statement, saying to Obama: “Iran continues to pursue a nuclear option. Those weapons, if they got them, would probably pose the greatest threat to Israel.” According to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, Iran discontinued its alleged nuclear weapons program in 2003.
Pundits often justify their decision to exclude “second-tier” candidates from debates on the grounds that they distract attention away from the real issues. If presenting a distraction from the real issues is really the problem, perhaps moderators such as Stephanopoulos and Gibson should seriously think of excusing themselves from future debates.
Ask ABC why debate moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson so often derailed the debate away from
issues of concern to voters and, in a debate that was supposed to help Democratic voters choose their party’s candidate, framed so many questions from a right wing perspective.
Worst. Debate. Ever.
The blogosphere is unanimous in declaring ABC’s Democratic debate an absolute stinker
By Richard Adams
Almost a year since the Democrats had their first debate of the presidential campaign, and what did we get in the latest one? A stinker, an absolute car crash – thanks to the host network ABC. It was worse than even those debates last year with 18 candidates on stage, including crazy old Mike Gravel.
It took almost 50 minutes into the debate before the first question came that resembled something to do with policy, rather than warmed-up campaign sniping phrased as questions, and which ran the gamut from banal to inane. At the end of the debate members of the crowd appeared to be booing moderator Charlie Gibson.
The blogosphere was not happy. Not happy at all….
“In perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years,” began Greg Mitchell on the Huffington Post, “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.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s blogger Daniel Rubin summed up the first half of the debate:
We’ve revisted bitter. We’ve gone back to Bosnia. We’ve dragged Rev. Wright back up onto the podium. We’ve mis-spent this debate by allowing Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulis to ask questions that skirt what in my mind is what we need to know now.
Over at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogger Will Bunch felt moved to pen an open letter to Gibson and Stephanopoulos, confessing: “I am still angry at what I just witnessed, so angry that it’s hard to even type accurately because my hands are shaking”. But he recovered to go on:
Indeed, if I were a citizen of one of those nations where America is seeking to “export democracy,” and I had watched the debate, I probably would have said, “No thank you.” Because that was no way to promote democracy.
Over at the famously rude Wonkette politics blog (now under new ownership) the gloves were off in a live blog by Jim Newell: “Wow, George Stephanopoulos just asked an embarrassing question: ‘Does Jeremiah Wright love America as much as you?’ Seriously. Because if he doesn’t, then he cannot be your Secretary of Black that you obviously intend to make him.”
Wonkette readers were quick to make their feelings clear. “Whichever candidate wins, I hope they launch airstrikes against ABC headquarters,” wrote one, while another commented: “These are the worst debate questions in the history of this whole stupid campaign.” By half-time, another commenter was moved to write: “Holy fuck. I just put my kids to bed and started watching the miserable shit sober. No can do. Bye bye tv assholes!”
Tapped, the American Prospect’s blog, was more polite but just as savage: “The questions were fantastically bad, the candidates didn’t really manage to rise above them. Overall, pretty sad. You know who lost? America.”
Noam Scheiber at The Plank, the New Republic politics blog, thought the debate itself probably helped Clinton rather than Obama:
But, obviously, the real story of the night was the crazy gauntlet of questioning ABC put Obama through. The first half of the debate felt like a 45-minute negative ad, reprising the most chewed over anti-Obama allegations (bittergate, Jeremiah Wright, patriotism) and even some relatively obscure ones (his vague association with former Weatherman radical Bill Ayers).
Chris Bowers at OpenLeft agreed: “Halfway through the debate, not a single question on any policy issue had been asked, it was obvious that this debate was prime-time hit job on Obama.”
Oh well. The good news: this may have been the last debate of the Democratic campaign, since the next one in North Carolina hasn’t been agreed yet.