ABC sinks to new low in debate, but record won’t stand for long

I missed last night’s “debate” between Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. From what I can tell this morning, that was the smartest thing I did all day. I’ve read a good bit about it and seen some video and it looks like what transpired in Philadelphia may have been a new low-water mark in American journalism.

Let’s see what people are saying.

  • We’ll start at Crooks & Liars, which has video of the debacle.
  • Next let’s check in at the ABC “News” Web site, where the network’s viewers are still engaging in one of the bloodiest nard-stompings I’ve ever seen. Nearly 16,000 comments as I write, and the consensus is not a happy one.
  • SenateGuru explains why G-Steph should be embarrassed.
  • Yes, Charlie, the crowd is turning on you. Because you’re a joke.
  • Jack & Jill Politics called it a “freak show,” a “disgrace” and “a great disservice to the American people and the people of Pennsylvania.”
  • Cenk Uygur at Young Turks wonders if Stephanopoulos realizes how he’s being played by the GOP Distraction Machine.
  • Probably not. I mean, if you’re dumbass enough to go on goddamned Sean Hannity’s show and let him feed you questions, you’re probably not smart enough to recognize it when you’re being gang-buggered by the RNC dirty tricks committee.
  • Drawing on the legendary Walter Lippman, BooMan characterizes ABC’s performance last night as a sin against democracy.
  • The proceedings looked especially inane from the other side of the pond. Niall Strange of The Guardian noted how the moderators oscillated between “relentless triviality” and “the willingness…to volunteer as water-carriers for a conservative attack machine.”
  • But hey, let’s not just take the word of those dirty freedom-hating liberal bloggers. At the Washington Post the well-respected Tom Shales accused Gibson and Stephanopoulos of turning in “shoddy, despicable performances.”

Perhaps the best critique of the lot comes from Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News.

Quickly, a word to any and all of my fellow journalists who happen to read this open letter: This. Must. Stop. Tonight, if possible. I thought that we had hit rock bottom in March 2003, when we failed to ask the tough questions in the run-up to the Iraq war. But this feels even lower. We need to pick ourselves up, right now, and start doing our job — to take a deep breath and remind ourselves of what voters really need to know, and how we get there, that’s it’s not all horse-race and “gotcha.” Although, to be blunt, I would also urge the major candidates in 2012 to agree only to debates that are organized by the League of Women Voters, with citizen moderators and questioners. Because we have proven without a doubt in 2008 that working journalists don’t deserve to be the debate “deciders.”

Damn. Maybe ABC saw this Onion News Network report and thought it was real.

Periodically we’ll examine some instance of journalistic malpractice or another and perhaps ask ourselves if we’ve finally hit bottom, but at this point I think we need to instead be asking if there is a bottom. Is there any low to which the American press will not stoop? Is there any question so stupid that some hair-gelled punditeer won’t ask it? Is there any damage that our corporate news agencies won’t do to the Republic in the name of profit?

These are open questions.

  • The media’s complicity in all the faux Clinton scandals was appalling, especially in light of how transparently partisan the dirty tricks campaigns were.
  • Then many of us wondered how much lower the press could go than it did in the Chandra Levy non-story. If you bought all the wailing and gnashing of teeth and the cries of “never again” coming from all corners of the journalistic landscape in the aftermath of that one, dock yourself ten points and go sit in the corner until after recess, you silly little bitch.
  • What about the gleefulness with which the press aided and abetted the run-up to the Iraq War?
  • Let’s not forget Plamegate, or The Tragic Case of Karl Rove’s Typist.
  • Heck, in general, can we ask about the 4th Estate’s abject refusal, under any circumstances, to perform even the most basic watchdogging on one of the most inept and corrupt governments in our history? It’s not like we’re asking them to go cover the hard stories or anything – just get the easy ones right. Had they known reporters were going to behave the way they do today, what possible rationale could the Founders have offered for freedom of the press?

Charlie and George may have set a new record for disgusting ineptitude last night, but don’t expect the mark to stand for long. Why? Easy. While there are significant forces exerting a downward pressure on journalistic “standards” – everything from a poorly educated and intellectually slothful public to a corporatist power structure that benefits from mind-numbing dog and pony shows – there are very few insisting that we do better.

The best proof I can offer of this lies with the candidates themselves. Obama and Clinton could demand more, couldn’t they? They may not have particularly enjoyed the idiocy last night, but they could have done something about it.

They could have insured it didn’t happen beforehand, because the candidates exert significant control over what goes on in a debate.

They could have stopped it in its track as it was happening. Imagine had Sen. Clinton looked the moderators in the eye and said “this election is too important to millions of Americans for us to tolerate the monkey show you’re trying to run. Either get serious or get off the stage. Sen. Obama and I are smart enough to run this thing ourselves, I think.” Imagine Sen. Obama mocking G-Steph: “George, I see you’re reading directly from a Republican talking points document there. Didn’t ABC have any actual journalists it could have put in your chair tonight?”

Imagine the two of them calling timeout, huddling up, then taking three minutes apiece to scorch the state of American journalism. Then walking off the stage together.

None of that happened. Obama is in front of some cameras this morning sniping about the debate a bit, although he seems to want me to believe that he was just as much a helpless victim as was the rest of America. Am I buying this? Are you?

Well, this won’t be the last debate, will it? If the next one is a model for political discourse in an advanced society, then we’ll know he and Sen. Clinton are fed up, too. If not, we’ll know that they’re content (along with Sen. McCain, who’ll be drawn in later in the summer) with their roles in the monkey show.

Regardless, it’s clear that the 4th Estate isn’t going to clean up its own house until there is a clear financial incentive to do so. I don’t see that happening anything soon, so you should probably brace yourself for more and more of the less and less.


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  • To be fair to Obama, I don’t think it’s as easy as you are saying it is for him to “do something” about it. He is a politician and he walks a thin line. He knows that Americans don’t like “crybabies” and while I would personally love if he did the things you talk about here, I’m sure many Americans just wouldn’t understand. Obama has a lead and doesn’t really have any reason to do anything that risky politically.

  • Sam, you’re on fire today. Great articles!

  • And to think I thought Geraldo Rivera hit the bottom with Al Capone’s (bogus) vault….

  • Brandon: Yeah, people keep pissing me off.

    Brian: I’m trying to stick to real journalism.

  • I’m trying to stick to real journalism.

    I’m trying to figure out if you actually managed to type that without falling out of chair out of laughter, or if I just didn’t hear it over the volume of Funkytown, Tori Amos, and the Cruxshadows in my headphones….

  • Great post.

    That debate was horrible, and Clinton and Obama should have walked out.


  • Brian: You know how I hate irony.

    Jeff: If they had, I imagine they’d have earned a few respect points from every voter in America, including Republicans. They probably don’t enjoy having their intelligence insulted, either, I’m guessing.

  • I was waiting for you to take a run at this Sam. Last night as i was watching I was thinking to my self “shit i should switch channels to American Idol, at least it has some integrity.”

    I was also thinking that the internet would crash with all the people posting about the “debate”.

    I was a little saddened that Barack didn’t call them out. I under stand he’s taking the high road and he doesn’t want to be the “black guy who is victimized”, but last night really pissed me off. When they asked him if Rev Wright loved America all he had to do is say “I’m sure he does, but why don’t you ask him”

    I can’t imaging that out of all the questions submitted by the people of PA the one that HAD to be asked was about his refusal to wear a freakin American flag pin. If I was him i wouldn’t have even answered that question. Actually i think he should have just laughed at the question.

    Walking out would have been sweet, but then they would be labeled as quitters. I can imagine all the cut-n-run references for the rest of their lives.

    This debate was so bad that ABC did a story today about it’s “mixed” reviews. This was the first debate I actually turned off this year. I wanted to write about it, but there was just so much to write I actually didn’t know where to start.

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  • pro choice lib

    Public service message:

    “Turn Off The TV!”

  • That wasn’t a debate. It was a 3 on 1 gang bashing on Obama with Hillary acting in proxy for McCain. The Charlie and George team should be ashamed. They represented the MSM in its slimiest hour.
    Also, if the guilt-by-association (GBA) card is going to be used against Obama, it can be used against Clinton and would make her a philandering impeachable liar since she lived with one for many years. If you really want a stretch on the GBA card, McCain could be a labeled a torturer because he spent 6 years with them. The GBA card is ludicrous and for the ignorant fools who also think Obama is a Muslim. How easily the biased-can’t-think-for-themselves-sheeple are swayed. A dumbed down populus is a contollable populus. Those who control the information, control the people. What has become of the 4th Estate?

  • Could we get some reporting on Sibel Edmonds? Oh, I just remembered, the MSM doesn’t seem to cover stories like hers.

  • You would have throught that hillary, was running against A repub. instead of Democ. Obama when she brought up 911 about 10 times in the aledged debate? Maybe that Shot and beer were still making her spin.

  • if you’re dumbass enough to go on goddamned Sean Hannity’s show and let him feed you questions, you’re probably not smart enough to recognize it when you’re being gang-buggered by the RNC dirty tricks committee.

    Good one, Dr. S. It’s as if Stehanopolous weren’t aware that the right has all these websites where they while away their time making mountains out of molehills.

    Question: How many journalists can dance on the head of a flag pin?

  • That was a debate? I thought Larry King and Barbara Walters looked a little odd.

  • Pingback: Scholars and Rogues » More on the debate

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