Gibson And Stephanopoulos: The Keystone Flops

The Democratic debate in Philadelphia last night was dominated by a wall of stupid painstakingly constructed by ABC’s moderators, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.

Their obsession with trivia and avoidance of substance submerged this affair from its opening introduction. It’s hard to say it much better than Washington Post critic Tom Shales who leads off by saying that “Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, turned in shoddy, despicable performances,” and then proceeds to say what he really thinks.

And he’s not alone…

Tom Shales (Washington Post) – “For the first 52 minutes of the two-hour, commercial-crammed show, Gibson and Stephanopoulos dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news. Some were barely news to begin with.”

Will Bunch (Philadelphia Daily News) – “By so badly botching arguably the most critical debate of such an important election, in a time of both war and economic misery, you disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself.”

Greg Mitchell (Editor and Publisher) – “In perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years, ABC News hosts Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous focused mainly on trivial issues as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off in Philadelphia.”

Andrew Sullivan (The Atlantic) – “The loser was ABC News: 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.”

Joanne Ostrow (Denver Post) – “Wednesday’s televised candidates’ debate from Philadelphia, tape delayed in Denver, got around to issues eventually. But the first round- devoted to pettiness and word obsession and gaffes- was more revealing.”

Joe Klein (Time) – “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.”

Michael Grunwald (Time) – “At a time of foreign wars, economic collapse and environmental peril, the cringe-worthy first half of the debate focused on such crucial matters as Senator Obama’s comments about rural bitterness, his former pastor, an obscure sixties radical with whom he was allegedly “friendly,” and the burning constitutional question of why he doesn’t wear an American flag pin on his lapel.”

Richard Adams (The Guardian) – “A stinker, an absolute car crash – thanks to the host network ABC. It was worse than even those debates last year with 18 candidates on stage, including crazy old Mike Gravel.”

Noam Scheiber (New Republic) – “The first half of the debate felt like a 45-minute negative ad, reprising the most chewed over anti-Obama allegations (bittergate, Jeremiah Wright, patriotism) and even some relatively obscure ones (his vague association with former Weatherman radical Bill Ayers).”

Daniel Rubin (Philadelphia Inquirer) – “We’ve revisted bitter. We’ve gone back to Bosnia. We’ve dragged Rev. Wright back up onto the podium. We’ve mis-spent this debate by allowing Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos to ask questions that skirt what in my mind is what we need to know now. What would they do about the mess they’d inherit? The war. Health care. The economy. Stupid.”

Cathleen Decker and Noam N. Levey (Los Angeles Times) – “With the moderators and Clinton raising assorted questions about Obama’s past for the first half of the debate, issues received relatively short shrift. Not until 50 minutes in was a policy issue — Iraq — asked about by the moderators. More than an hour went by before a question was asked about what Stephanopoulos called “the No. 1 issue on Americans’ minds” — the economy.”

Stephanoupolos defended himself by saying that voters are concerned with

“…experience, character [and] credibility. You can’t find a presidential election where those issues didn’t come into play.”

The problem is that you can’t find a but a trace of questions in this debate where those issues did come into play. The moderators had obviously decided that they were going to chase petty controversy and ratings by focusing on tabloid trivialities. Their cynical smugness and conceit are a sad commentary on the state of journalism and politics.

MoveOn has started a petition to ask the media to “stop hurting the national dialogue in this important election year.”

FAIR is urging citizens to write to ABC:


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