In an open letter to ABC, journalists and media analysts condemn the network’s poor handling of the April 16 Democratic presidential debate.
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Editor’s Note: What does a meaningful presidential debate look like to you? Write a Web letter to The Nation.
We, the undersigned, deplore the conduct of ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson at the Democratic Presidential debate on April 16. The debate was a revolting descent into tabloid journalism and a gross disservice to Americans concerned about the great issues facing the nation and the world. This is not the first Democratic or Republican presidential debate to emphasize gotcha questions over real discussion. However, it is, so far, the worst.
For 53 minutes, we heard no question about public policy from either moderator. ABC seemed less interested in provoking serious discussion than in trying to generate cheap shot sound-bites for later rebroadcast. The questions asked by Mr. Stephanopoulos and Mr. Gibson were a disgrace, and the subsequent attempts to justify them by claiming that they reflect citizens’ interest are an insult to the intelligence of those citizens and ABC’s viewers. Many thousands of those viewers have already written to ABC to express their outrage.
The moderators’ occasional later forays into substance were nearly as bad. Mr. Gibson’s claim that the government can raise revenues by cutting capital gains tax is grossly at odds with what taxation experts believe. Both candidates tried, repeatedly, to bring debate back to the real problems faced by ordinary Americans. Neither moderator allowed them to do this.
We’re at a crucial moment in our country’s history, facing war, a terrorism threat, recession, and a range of big domestic challenges. Large majorities of our fellow Americans tell pollsters they’re deeply worried about the country’s direction. In such a context, journalists moderating a debate–who are, after all, entrusted with free public airwaves–have a particular responsibility to push and engage the candidates in serious debate about these matters. Tough, probing questions on these issues clearly serve the public interest. Demands that candidates make pledges about a future no one can predict or excessive emphasis on tangential “character” issues do not. This applies to candidates of both parties.
Neither Mr. Gibson nor Mr. Stephanopoulos lived up to these responsibilities. In the words of Tom Shales of the Washington Post, Mr. Gibson and Mr. Stephanopoulos turned in “shoddy, despicable performances.” As Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher describes it, the debate was a “travesty.” We hope that the public uproar over ABC’s miserable showing will encourage a return to serious journalism in debates between the Democratic and Republican nominees this fall. Anything less would be a betrayal of the basic responsibilities that journalists owe to their public.