Thursday, April 17, 2008

The debate that wasn't

The gotcha dimension of the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign finally slipped into the presumably high-minded realm of the debate in Philadelphia on Wednesday, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama forced to contend with answering questions that were less about the people’s business and more about providing material for the tabloids and soundbite shows.

The scorecard snapshot is simple enough: It was a decent night for Clinton, a worse night for Obama, and a dismal night for ABC News, proxy for the American press.

When given the opportunity to seek answers to the issues most concerning to Americans — from health care to the housing crisis, from the broader national economy to ending the war in Iraq — the ABC moderators put front and center the comparatively unimportant matters. From the Rev. Wright issue to Obama’s “bitter” comments to the flag lapel-pin flap, from Clinton’s Bosnia mistakes to her insistence of a better electability, many of the early debate questions were the stuff of the tabloids.

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What this debate called for was journalists willing to invoke the same “inverted pyramid” approach to inquiry as is basic to reporting. The inverted pyramid is a basic rule of Journalism 101: The important stuff of a news story goes at the top, becoming less and less central to the narrative as the reader works toward the bottom of a story.

It’s not a stretch of journalistic logic to think that, in what’s likely the last debate of the primary season, journalists would ask the deeper, more meaningful questions related to Americans’ wallets and well-being right out of the gate. By and large, they didn’t.

“Last night, 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. It took us 45 minutes!” Obama said Thursday at a rally in Raleigh, N.C.

“Forty-five minutes before we heard about health care. Forty-five minutes before we heard about Iraq,” he continued. “Forty-five — 45 — minutes before we heard about jobs. Forty-five minutes before we heard about gas prices.”

Obama mentioned what should be the most embarrassing thing for the moderators: that a debate moderated by presumably disinterested, skeptical journalists “was the roll-out of the Republican campaign against me in November. That is what they will do. They will try to focus on all these issues that don’t have anything to do with how you pay your bills at the end of the month.”

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Two matters made the debate even worse. First, one of the moderators was ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, host of the Sunday-windbag show “This Week,” was a senior political adviser to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and later Clinton communications director. The previous relationship between Stephanopoulos and the Clintons should have been a huge red flag for ABC. The appearance of a conflict of interest, as all good journalists know, can be just as bad as a real conflict. This, apparently, never crossed the network’s mind.

Second, the order of the questions suggested an ordering of priorities at odds with the concerns of American voters — the storied pocketbook issues often central to Americans’ motivations in the voting booth. That was bad enough. But by virtue of the order in which the substantive questions were asked, Stephanopoulos and co-malefactor Charles Gibson (who ought to know better) were complicit in what’s known in journospeak as “burying the lead,” relegating the real news (or the real questions that might have provoked real news) to a position of relative unimportance.

The real news of the debate occurred when Hillary Clinton, responding to a question about Iran, Israel and the wider Middle East, said the United States “should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel” — a statement that suggests Clinton would duplicate the kind of us-versus-them line in the sand that typified the United States relationship with the eastern bloc (read: the Soviet Union) during the cold war.

Clinton went further, saying that “an [Iranian] attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States …” No mention of diplomatic overtures beforehand. No mention of consultation with the Congress. Clinton leaped straight to the shock & awe scenario — and wasn’t even challenged on this by either of the moderators.

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Hunter, blogging at The Daily Kos: called the debate “so deeply embarrassing to the nation that it will be pointed to, in future books and documentary works, as a prime example of the collapse of the American media into utter and complete substanceless, into self-celebrated vapidity, and into a now-complete inability or unwillingness to cover the most important affairs of the nation to any but the most shallow of depths.”

“… ABC had two hours of access to two of the three remaining candidates vying to lead the most powerful nation in the world, and spent the decided majority of that time mining what the press considers the true issues facing the republic. Bittergate; Rev. Wright; Bosnia; American flag lapel pins.”

At this writing, ABC News has received more than 19,400 comments posted to its post-debate story, most responses apparently in the negative.

Craig, posting on the ABC News Web site: “The so-called debate aired on ABC last night was more debacle than debate. The American people deserve to know where the candidates stand on the issues, not rehash a laundry list of gaffes and mistakes.”

But people weighed in from everywhere. RTM, posting at The Caucus blog of the New York Times Web site: “This debate was dreadful. If Stephanopoulos and Gibson’s trite questioning is the best ABC can offer, then the network should just shut down its news division and call it a day.”

Dee, posting to the Times site from Dallas: "We are in the middle of not 1 but 2 wars, we are in what many feel is a full blown recession, gasoline is fast approaching a record $4.00 a gallon, people are losing their homes and livelihoods in record numbers and instead of homework and college applications, the youth of today would rather film themselves assaulting each other for You Tube! But the issues most concerning ABC in a debate of 2 candidates for whom one could very possibly be the next leader of the free world is why one of them does not wear a flag lapel pin!!! Give me a break!!!"

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Earlier Wednesday, the New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen backed Obama. “"He has the depth, the reflectiveness, and the resilience to be our next president," Springsteen said on his Web site. “He speaks to the America I've envisioned in my music for the past 35 years, a generous nation with a citizenry willing to tackle nuanced and complex problems, a country that's interested in its collective destiny and in the potential of its gathered spirit.”

In his Web letter, Springsteen both summed up the tone of the campaign so far and anticipated Wednesday night’s foolishness in Philadelphia. “Critics have tried to diminish Senator Obama through the exaggeration of certain of his comments and relationships,” he wrote.

“While these matters are worthy of some discussion, they have been ripped out of the context and fabric of the man's life and vision ... often in order to distract us from discussing the real issues: war and peace, the fight for economic and racial justice, reaffirming our Constitution, and the protection and enhancement of our environment.”

Maybe Bruce should moderate the debates in 2012.

ABC News brass will dig in their heels and say the moderators acted responsibly and professionally — adopting the customary defensive crouch of news corporations caught in controversies of their own making. But it’s a wasted effort. ABC ripped away the illusion of journalistic objectivity and played to the dumbest common denominator on Wednesday night. This non-debate debate revealed more about the sad state of American journalism than anything else.
Image credits: Stephanopoulos: Garret Nuzzo-Jones, Blacksburg, Va, (Wikipedia), republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. Springsteen: Sister72 (Wikipedia), repubished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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