A Moment in the Demise of Nightline

A "debate" over the existence of God reveals the sad state of the nightly news, as guided by the steady hand of Martin Bashir.

A post late yesterday by Troy Patterson over at Slate reminded us of something we had wanted to comment on, but might have subconsciously blocked. On Wednesday night, ABC’s “Nightline” sank to a new post-Koppel low, with the insufferable Martin Bashir, a man so off-putting that in 2003 he was voted the fifth worst Briton in a poll that produced the 100 Worst Britons, leading the race to the bottom.

Maybe a revulsion to all things Bashir is our problem, but what is a problem for the greater viewing public is the pathetic spectacle that “Nightline” has at times become since Ted Koppel moved on. Case in point was the first installment of a new feature called “Nightline Face-Off,” where “prominent voices in their field” debate hot issues. Up first is the issue of the existence of God, with pro-God experts Ray Comfort (an evangelical minister) and former teen beat poster boy Kirk Cameron, squaring off against the Rational Response Squad, comprised of one guy calling himself Brian Sapient, while the other was simply known as “Kelly.” At question was whether there was proof of God’s existence, or non-existence.

Can you imagine Koppel hosting a weak ploy like this, played out between these “prominent voices in their field?” The whole premise reeks more of a smoky freshman dorm room than it does something worthy of “Nightline.”

The segment was hyped throughout the broadcast, and as Patterson writes, ABC did “its damnedest to slap together suspenseful buildup and cheap hype. Here was Cameron bearing his carry-ons onto the plane to New York. Here was an intimate, makeup-chair moment with Comfort, who applauded his partner’s bravery in continuing to risk his Hollywood career for the sake of his beliefs, which suggested that Comfort had let his Variety subscription lapse 15 years ago. Here were the deniers lugging their garment bags into a Manhattan church.”

And after all that build up, nothing. Bashir and his producers managed to deliver even less than what even modest expectations might have hoped for. For just a taste of the intellectual rigor of the debate, consider Cameron’s opening remarks, which was punctuated by the zinger, “the number one reason that people don’t believe in God is not a lack in evidence, but because of a theory that many scientists today believe to be a fairytale for grownups.”

We guess he means the theory of evolution here, which he later slams by holding up various illustrated pictures of cross-breed animals, including one that portrayed a duck with the head of crocodile. We could go on, but why? Nightline felt no responsibility to take the issue seriously enough to include, say, a scientist or a theologian in the debate, so other than pointing out the dumbing down of the national conversation, we’ll just leave it at saying that we expect more of Nightline, and the American people deserve better than being forced to endure half-baked publicity stunts dressed up as news.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.