ABC’s Dispiriting Debate

What’s the point of rolling in the mud?

A person who would pay close enough attention to all the debates between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to rate them in some precise way is a person who needs a couple of nights of Jeopardy! and a long walk. Still, I put forward the proposition that this debate was among the worst, if not the bottom of the lot. And that this is largely the fault of ABC News.

Not entirely, of course. The campaign has a dispiriting dynamic now, with Clinton, significantly behind in the delegate count, working overtime to convey the notion to both voters and superdelegates that Obama is not electable. She does this by trying to make him not electable.

So when Obama says something arguably elitist in San Francisco, for example, she amplifies it to the max. BitterGate was a legitimate item, as were the revelations about the Reverend Wright’s sermons before them. But neither story was World War III, as the Clinton campaign would have you believe, and as the gaffe-gobbling cable operations played them. With the shoe on the other foot, when Clinton mis-remembered that sniper situation in Bosnia, Obama’s campaign in turn worked overtime to insinuate that Clinton is not trustworthy (and thus neither are her increasingly sharp charges against their man).

So any debate at this point would reflect this sour dynamic to some extent. This one got down and rolled around in it.

What’s the point? ABC’s Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos are among the best in television news, but it feels as if this time they breathed in too much of the the stale air of the political war rooms as they formulated their questions. Maybe they were thinking, if Senator Clinton is making the unelectable argument, let’s go full bore on it, see how Senator Obama reacts. But what was illuminated?

Both BitterGate and the Wright-orama had a very full airing prior to last night. The questions about them—forty-five minutes worth—demonstrated little beyond a network’s desire to produce sound bites. They had a when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife feel to them. Or, maybe, when-did-you-reject-the-American-flag? The tone of the night was condescending, actually, as if Gibson and Stephanopoulos think the voters are not all that bright. They went hunting for hot buttons rather than clarity.

The Constitution quotes interspersed throughout just seemed to emphasize the hollowness of the evening. It made you long for a quiet debate at a kitchen table somewhere instead, with some ordinary people who would just like to know where these two candidates want to take the nation and how those visions differ from those of the other party. How do we fix all those failing schools, anyway? What if we start to pull out of Iraq and all hell breaks loose? How did a lack of regulation figure into the mortgage crisis, and what can be done about that? How can an insurance company get away with not insuring a pre-existing condition for sick people? And how will you say no to them when they help finance your campaign? What if the economy truly tanks?

Okay, there are probably better, more creative, and fresher questions. Gibson and Stephanopoulos and their people should have thought some up.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.