The Backlash Against ABC

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008; 9:10 AM

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

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 Rev. Jeremiah Wright (Stephanopoulos followup: "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 an ABC/Washington Post 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 objective media writers and 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."

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