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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."

"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.

And now, even more reaction to the debate. National Review's Stephen Spruiell says the so-called gaffes matter:

"The question of electability in the general election is the only one that matters anymore in the race for the Democratic nomination, and ABC's moderators did a good job because they kept that in mind. Gibson and Stephanopolous asked questions about the candidates' personal associations and the controversies surrounding some of their public positions (such as Obama's decision to stop wearing a flag lapel pin). When the questions did focus on substantial matters, they concerned things like the right to bear arms, affirmative action, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the capital-gains tax.

"Blogger Andrew Sullivan's reaction was typical of many -- he called it 'one of the worst media performances I can remember -- petty, shallow, process-obsessed, trivial where substantive, and utterly divorced from the actual issues that Americans want to talk about.' By those, he meant things like 'the environment . . . interrogation [of terror suspects] . . . [and] healthcare.' But ABC's debate was a success because it steered clear of issues like these, i.e. issues on which the candidates mostly agree. How many times have we heard Clinton and Obama argue endlessly over what amounts to a very minor difference in their health-care plans?"

What, you're not up for another 20 minutes on mandates?

Salon's Walter Shapiro likens the debate to a baaad cartoon:

"Broadcast to a prime-time network audience on ABC and devoid of a single policy question during its opening 50 minutes, the debate easily could have convinced the uninitiated that American politics has all the substance of a Beavis and Butt-Head marathon. If the debate was a dress rehearsal for the Oval Office, then the job of a 21st-century president primarily consists of ducking gotcha questions. As Obama rightly complained, deflecting a fatuous question about his seeming reluctance to don an American-flag pin, 'This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us from . . . figuring out how we get our troops out of Iraq and how we actually make our economy better for the American people.'

"This was not an evening that will shimmer in Obama's memory book. Facing a new-guy-on-the-block hazing from moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, Obama at times displayed a whiff of petulance at the steady assault of questions about the controversial sermons of his former minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his Chicago social connection to Bill Ayers, a semi-unrepentant alumni of the Weather Underground . . .

"But with the April 22 Pennsylvania primary less than a week away, Obama won the debate by the simple act of not losing."

Slate's John Dickerson runs through Obama's problems in the debate and then hits the brakes:

"I will now adjust my view of Obama's rough start to account for the personal weather system under which he apparently operates. Many things that looked like they would punish him during this campaign have not. Furthermore, it appears that he has made it through the initial aftermath of his ungainly remarks about Pennsylvania small-town folk without a slip in the polls.

"There was nothing that had the potential to wound like those remarks did, so Obama may yet not be damaged as much as a normal candidate ought. On the other hand, the sheer number of questions may make the next round of primary voters wonder about Obama's foundation. Or they might wonder how he could, with a straight face, decry Hillary Clinton for taking snippets of his remarks out of context and blowing them up, when he has done the same so expertly and so frequently with John McCain's claim about America's 100-year commitment to Iraq . . .

"It's an upside for Obama that Hillary Clinton isn't especially attractive when she's on the attack."

At the New Republic, Jonathan Cohn says the evening took a toll on Obama:

"Gibson asked about the now-infamous comments Obama made about 'bitter' working-class Americans: 'Do you understand that some people in this state find that patronizing and think that you said actually what you meant?' For a moment, I imagined Obama answering with what I thought might be running through his head. 'Of course I know, you dummy. I can read a newspaper.'

"Alas, presidential candidates don't get to be snide (unless they're John McCain, in which case they can be anything they want and still get glowing media coverage). Instead, a weary-looking Obama answered all of these familiar questions with what have become his familiar answers. Some are good, some not so good, but in a sense it really didn't matter. The cumulative effect was to turn the debate's first half into a long infomercial about Obama's electability issues."

To Time's Joe Klein, the issue is not ABC's alleged one-sidedness but lack of nuance:

"I think Stephanopoulos and Gibson were doing what journalists do: they picked the most obvious scabs. They asked trivial questions because this has become a trivial campaign--mostly because Clinton and Obama have nearly identical positions on most issues. And there is some value in seeing how Obama--the likely nominee--will handle Republican style attacks in the general election campaign, should they come. Last night he handled them fairly well, but not nearly as sharply as he could have. He stumbled about, at times. He could have been more aggressive about shaming Clinton for her 100% negative advertising in the campaign. He could have deployed the humor that he's used so effectively in the past. His essential point--that these trivial pursuits are distractions from the huge issues at stake in this election--needed to be driven home more forcefully.

"But I was as dismayed with the second half of the debate--the 'substantive' part--as I was with the first. The ABC moderators clearly didn't spend much time thinking about creative substantive gambits. They asked banal, lapidary questions, rather than trying to break new ground. They asked the same old Iraq troop withdrawal question, rather than using the skillful interrogation Clinton and Obama deployed during the Petraeus hearings last week as a way to dig deeper toward the heart of the issue . . .

"My guess is that Obama, simply by pointing out the dopiness of the questions in the first half of the debate, probably emerged from this better than Clinton did."

Former ABC staffer Marc Ambinder agrees that this is spring training for Obama's fall season:

"Most of the ill-wind seems to be blowing from the Obama corner of the woods doesn't mean that the wind is artificial. My instinct, as a card-carrying member of the news media and a former ABC News person, is to defend ABC News, but I won't do that: ABC can defend itself. Some of the criticism seems warranted; a few key facts in the preamble to certain questions were wrong; the American flag pin question seemed out of place (although there are many Democrats and independents who really do worry about that, even though Obama has explained it to the satisfaction of most others.). Bill Ayers is a toughy; some associations matter, and some don't . . .

"I personally have no problem with a 'one-sided' debate, particularly one that focuses on the de-facto nominee, on the guy who wants voters to elect him to the most powerful office in the land. It also is illogical for Democrats to assert that simply because Republicans are likely to bring up certain issues and associations in certain ways, the media or other Democrats ought to be prohibited from bringing those up."

But Hot Air's Ed Morrissey is impressed:

"Thanks to a surprisingly tenacious set of questions for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton from ABC moderaters Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous, Barack Obama got exposed over and over again as an empty suit, while Hillary cleaned his clock . . .Kudos to ABC News for taking on both candidates fearlessly."

On that question about Bill Ayers: You'd think someone who was involved in bombings and says he regrets he didn't do more to stop the Vietnam War would be rather radioactive. But the Chicago Tribune reports:

"Bill Ayers long ago settled into a life of quiet respectability as a well-regarded professor of education and a much-published activist for better schools. With his Ivy League doctorate, 48-page curriculum vitae and liberal politics, he fits comfortably into Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood. But Ayers' unquiet past as a leader of the violent Weathermen during the Vietnam War has been thrust into the Democratic presidential race because of his relationship with a neighbor, Barack Obama."

Among those praising Ayers: Mayor Richard Daley.

Here's another example, from the L.A. Times: "Laura S. Washington, chairwoman of the Woods Fund, called it 'ridiculous to suggest there's anything inappropriate' about Ayers and Obama serving on the nine-member board of directors."

The Boston Globe says the Obama-Ayers link first surfaced on a liberal Chicago writer's blog in 2005:

"When Obama became a presidential contender, it was conservatives who picked up on the story. On Feb. 2, conservative British writer Peter Hitchens mentioned Ayers in a piece titled 'The Black Kennedy: but does anyone know the real Barack Obama?' in the London Daily Mail. A week later, a mention of Ayers appeared in an anti-Obama blog known as Rezko Watch.

"Soon, the story turned up in the mainstream American press: in the Bloomberg news service, a Washington Post blog, and the New York Sun. An overview of the Ayers-Obama connection, published on Politico.com on Feb. 22, circulated widely on the Internet."

Ayers, by the way, is defending himself on his own blog. But he still doesn't say he regrets the bombings.

Finally, another reminder that for a journalist, blog posting--especially if you brag about being drunk--can cost you your job.

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