ABC News’s handling of Wednesday night’s debate has, of course, been greeted with near universal outrage. In a story headlined “Who Lost the Debate? Moderators, Many Say,” The New York Times reports today that Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos “became the subject of a fierce and somewhat unexpected debate themselves Thursday, as viewers, bloggers, and television critics lamented what they described as an opportunity lost: a chance to ask the two candidates for the Democratic nomination substantive questions early and often.” The ABC News Web site, the Times reported, has received over 17,600 comments since the debate.
Given this firestorm, I was curious to see what the country’s most prominent media critic, The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, had to say about ABC’s performance.
Turns out, not too much. Since the debate, Kurtz has written two long Web columns that rounded up other people’s mostly negative responses (one of which ran, in a shortened version, in today’s print edition.) But the only place where he ventures his own opinion comes three pages into yesterday’s column.
Kurtz notes that “liberal bloggers” hated the debate, and quotes Jason Linkins of The Huffington Post and Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher (not a liberal blogger, but whatever) complaining about the focus on trivial issues. Then Kurtz writes:
I disagree. The first half hour was spent on Bittergate, Wright, and Bosnia sniper-fire—political issues, sure, but all received huge coverage in the media, including the HuffPost. That was followed by lengthy discussions of Iraq, taxes, gun control, and affirmative action. I suspect their real beef was that the questions were tilted against Obama, which, in the first half, they were.
That’s all we get on Kurtz’s take.
Now obviously, Kurtz is entitled to his opinion. There’s no reason he has to agree with the conventional wisdom that ABC stumbled badly Wednesday night. But considering the widespread criticism the moderators have received, and the prominent position Kurtz holds in the world of media criticism, it’d be nice if he’d engage with the debate (no pun intended) a little more constructively than this.
Instead, his contribution consists of A) declaring that the non-substantive questions had already been covered by others anyway (which raises the question, why re-hash them?), and B) questioning, baselessly and irrelevantly, the motives of ABC’s critics. This is the absolute lowest form of argument—one that, even if true, utterly fails to grapple with the issue at hand.
(It’s worth noting that this flimsy take appeared in Thursday’s column, before it had become clear how widespread the criticism of ABC was. But today’s column, written after the scale of the controversy had become apparent to everyone, contains no hint of an opinion whatsoever from Kurtz himself, other than the flippant line “tough crowd out there,” in response to ABC’s critics.)
This isn’t unusual for Kurtz. Though the Post calls him its media critic, he seems to spend more time on well-reported news stories—sometimes on media controversies, sometimes on the internal developments of large media outlets—that shy away from offering much of a point of view, as well as on roundups of other people’s opinions for the Web.
Maybe Kurtz and his editors have decided that, with so much opinion out there on the Internet these days, it makes more sense to outsource that side of his job. There’s some logic to that—though it makes the “media critic” title a bit misleading. But much more importantly, it’s a shame that the country’s most prominent and prolific writer on the media (and one of its most knowledgeable) is so hesitant to offer an actual opinion. And that when he does, as in this case, it feels so lazily arrived at.