Everyone's piling on ABC News in the wake of last night’s debate. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales spoke for many when he skewered anchors Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos for their “shoddy, despicable performances.” More stinging (and amusing) assessments came from those live-blogging the debates.
Here’s Andrew Sullivan at 8:40 p.m. Eastern:
Now, it’s flag-pins! I'm just pointing out that we are now almost halfway through this debate and ABC News has not asked a single policy question. It's pure Rove, sustained and hyped and sustained by Stephanopoulos and Gibson. It's what they know; it's easy; and it will generate ratings. It is not journalism.
And Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo observes matters as they further degrade:
9:16 PM ... Did someone tell Charlie Gibson that he knows something about economics? There are a heck of a lot of people who make over $97,000 a year? Really? I think like 12% of the population makes more than $100,000 a year. And his capital gains point is a canard.
9:24 PM ... I was disappointed that Charlie Gibson seems to spout off right-wing bromides as established facts. I was even more disappointed that Obama didn’t seem able to knock them down.
9:29 PM ... I don't watch a lot of nightly news. Is Charlie Gibson usually this bad?
9:31 PM ... This is awful.
Then, at 9:50: What happened to the League of Women Voters? Can we give the debates back to them?
Most telling were the comments from viewers on ABCNews.com. Here’s one:
How utterly embarrassing for ABC, Gibson, and Stephanopoulos. No matter which candidate viewers support, the real focus was the inane questions and poor behavior of two veteran “journalists”... watch out Fox News, ABC is reaching for your star.
The flogging is certainly deserved. When George Stephanopoulos asked Barack Obama, “Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?” bile crept up my throat. And when the debate finally turned from what Shales called “specious and gossipy trivia” to actual policy matters—51 minutes in—the person responsible for guiding the discourse to reason wasn’t even on the moderators’ panel. Thank you, Mandy Garber, resident of Pittsburg, who asked via video an astute question regarding the candidates’ Iraq policy proposals:
The real question is, I mean, do the candidates have a real plan to get us out of Iraq, or is it just real campaign propaganda? And it's really unclear. They keep saying we want to bring the troops back. But considering what's happening on the ground, how is that going to happen?
The inanity from Wednesday’s debate could fill a week’s worth of episodes of the Daily Show. But let’s not kid ourselves. ABC News is not an anomaly. Their display of journalism-gone-mad is just the latest egregious example of the media’s failure this election. And if it keeps up, we could be looking at a repeat of 2000.
Remember 2000, when the liberal media harangued Al Gore for his silly lock-box and ran cheerful profiles of George W. Bush’s cheerleading days at Andover? The American public may be at fault for buying Karl Rove’s carefully constructed good ol’ boy candidate, but the folks who spoon-fed them the message were journalists.
And that gets to the fundamental misunderstanding of the liberal media slant. Reporters might skew liberal in their views, but their liberal mindset ends up serving conservatives come election season. Reporters know Democrats better; they understand their dirt and games and get wrapped up in them. They don’t understand Republicans as well. That’s why the evangelical machine’s turn out in 2000 caught reporters off guard: They weren’t running in the circles of the right’s foot soldiers. It’s an old but true cliché that the left eats itself, and part of the left doing the chomping is the media.
Here’s the other symptom plaguing liberal-minded reporters: They’re delicate and grievously susceptible to finger-wagging about fairness. Hillary Clinton knows this: When she played the skewed-coverage card reporters didn’t just bite, they wagged their tongues in obedience and upended the gains Obama was making in Ohio.
The final problem stalking reporters this year: They’ve gone lazy. I’m not talking about hours worked; those guys are running themselves ragged filing stories. I’m talking about intellectual laziness. They’ve bought into their own caricatures of the candidates. Case in point: Obama’s boneheaded remarks in San Francisco. They were immediately dubbed a “rookie” mistake revelatory of his Achilles heel in November. Meanwhile, John McCain cavorts about the Middle East calling al-Qaida a proxy of Iran. Does it count as a rookie mistake if you’ve been in the Senate more than 20 years?
That is, of course, a perennial plea to the press: Stop covering the horse-race and cover the issues. Reporters have weaseled out of that lately by noting that the two Democrats’ policy platforms are similar. In other words: There’s nothing to cover but the horse race. It’s a convenient excuse, and it’s also incredibly wrong-headed. Their job is not only to find the candidates’ differences—which do in fact exist—but to root out the issues not being discussed. In our July-August issue we highlight one such rare effort from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which urgently reminded candidates and voters that national security goes beyond the Middle East. But delving into such matters is tough. It takes time, research, and imagination. And that’s a lot harder than putting on repeat those videos of Clinton on a Bosnian tarmac.
I’m becoming genuinely fearful that what began as a slam-dunk election year for Democrats will lumber, knee-capped, into another Republican edged-out victory. On the Democratic side, fault will most likely be hurled upon the two candidates for battling so long and so hard. The true responsibility will lie with “liberal” journalists. Not because they didn’t take one for the team and buoy the Democrats, but because they didn’t do their jobs.
How do you think media coverage has impacted the election? Let us know in the Politics Salon.