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Performance By ABC's Moderators Is a Matter Of Debate

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Chris Cillizza and Anne E. Kornblut recap the Clinton-Obama debate at the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia.Video by Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

The political fallout from the Philadelphia face-off between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was all but eclipsed yesterday by a fierce debate about Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.

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The ABC moderators found themselves under fire for focusing on campaign gaffes and training most of their ammunition on Obama. Huffington Post blogger Jason Linkins called the debate "utterly asinine." Washington Post television critic Tom Shales called the duo's performance "despicable." Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch said the moderators "disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself."

Tough crowd out there.

"I think the questions were certainly pointed -- tough at times, as they should be in a presidential debate -- but not inappropriate or irrelevant at all," Stephanopoulos said yesterday. "The questions have been part of this campaign and in the news. We did our job. You're not going to satisfy everyone."

In the first 40 minutes of Wednesday's two-hour Democratic debate, the moderators asked Obama about his remarks that small-town residents bitterly cling to guns and religion; the inflammatory sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright (Stephanopoulos follow-up: "Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?"); why Obama doesn't wear an American flag pin; and his relationship with William Ayers, a former Weather Underground radical who has acknowledged involvement in several bombings in the 1970s.

In the only comparably aggressive question directed at Clinton, Stephanopoulos cited a Washington Post-ABC News poll challenging her honesty and tied it to her false tale of having once come under sniper fire in Bosnia.

"Senator Obama is the front-runner," said Stephanopoulos, the network's chief Washington correspondent and a former Clinton White House aide. "Our thinking was, electability was the number one issue," and questions about "relationships and character go to the heart of it."

Besides, he added, "you can't do a tougher question for Senator Clinton than 'six out of 10 Americans don't think you're honest.' "

Obama, for his part, complained about "gotcha games," saying yesterday: "I think we set a new record, because it took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people."

Clinton spokesman Jay Carson countered that "the press is supposed to ask every candidate tough questions. . . . If you can't handle tough questions from a TV anchor, how will you handle the Republicans or a hostile world leader?"

It is hardly unusual for debate moderators to draw partisan criticism, as NBC's Tim Russert did in October, when liberal commentators accused him of harassing Clinton over driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and other issues. But it is rare for ostensibly neutral media writers and television columnists to pile on with such fervor.

Some commentators praised ABC's handling of the debate, the only such clash before Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, but the critics were far more vocal. Greg Mitchell, editor of the trade publication Editor & Publisher, called the debate "shameful."

"The first half of the entire debate was taken up with questions that are not in the forefront of most people's minds, both in Pennsylvania and around the country," he said. "The notion that these questions were the most prominent was offensive and unfortunate. It's amazing that the media keep flogging issues like this."

But Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host, noted that Gibson and Stephanopoulos also asked the candidates about Iraq, Israel, gas prices, capital gains taxes, affirmative action and a Supreme Court case on the D.C. handgun ban.

"That's pretty substantive," she said. "It was one of the best debates of the entire political season, because it addressed substance and character at the same time. . . . Members of the media who believe Barack Obama is going to sail into the general election without having to tackle these questions several times are deluding themselves."

The debate about the debate -- which drew 10.7 million viewers, the most of this long campaign season -- focused on whether such controversies as Obama's "bitter" remarks, his relationship with his former pastor and Clinton's Bosnia flub are meaningless inside-the-Beltway flaps. The subjects have drawn saturation news coverage, and the Illinois senator made a major speech on Wright and racial issues. But Mitchell dismissed the controversies as old, and Shales called them "specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed."

Much of the reaction broke along ideological lines. From the right, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that ABC's performance was "excellent," adding: "The journalist's job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities."

The liberal advocacy arm of MoveOn.org, which has endorsed Obama, said it will run an ad against ABC if 100,000 people sign a petition accusing the moderators of abusing "the public trust" by asking "trivial questions . . . that only political insiders care about."

Among liberal bloggers, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo said ABC's questions were based on "frivolous points . . . that presumed the correctness of Republican agenda items." And Steve Benen of the Carpetbagger Report said the debate was a "travesty" that "marked a new low for the media freak-show."

On Gibson's "World News" last night, ABC said "thousands of angry viewers" had posted comments on its Web site, one complaining of "shoddy journalism" and another saying "Shame on you, Charlie and George. We deserve better." The network said there were also positive comments.

ABC correspondent Jake Tapper defended his colleagues in an interview, saying: "They were tougher on Obama, yes. He's the front-runner. By any empirical standard, many members of the media don't seem to want to ask Senator Obama tough questions, and Senator Obama doesn't seem to want to answer them. This is the 21st debate. It is the only one where people have complained that the moderators were tougher on Barack Obama than on Hillary Clinton or any other candidate. How on Earth is that possible?"

Some critics, including MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, pounced on the question about Ayers, saying that conservative radio hosts Sean Hannity and Steve Malzberg had suggested it when Stephanopoulos appeared on their programs this week.

But Stephanopoulos said he had been following the issue since the Politico reported it in February. "What finally tipped the balance on whether to ask it or not was that as far as we could tell, Obama had never answered the question," he said.


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