The ABC Murders

by Henry on April 18, 2008

Together with various other media types and bloggers, I’ve signed a letter of protest at the way in which ABC conducted the debate on Wednesday night. Text is below.

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.

Eric Alterman, City University of New York

Dean Baker, The American Prospect Online

Steven Benen, The Carpetbagger Report

Julie Bergman Sender, Balcony Films

Ari Berman, The Nation

Brian Beutler, The Media Consortium

Michael Bérubé, Crooked Timber/Pennsylvania State University

Joel Bleifuss, In These Times

Sam Boyd, The American Prospect

Lakshmi Chaudry, In These Times

Joe Conason, Journalist and Author

Brad DeLong, Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal/UC Berkeley

Kevin Drum, The Washington Monthly

Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber/George Washington University

James Galbraith, University of Texas at Austin

Todd Gitlin, Columbia University/TPM Cafe

Merrill Goozner (formerly Chicago Tribune)

Ilan Goldenberg, The National Security Network

Robert Greenwald, Brave New Films

Chris Hayes, The Nation

Don Hazen, Alternet

Michael Kazin, Georgetown University

Ed Kilgore, The Democratic Strategist

Richard Kim, The Nation

Ezra Klein, The American Prospect

Mark Kleiman, UCLA/The Reality Based Community

Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed

Ari Melber, The Nation

Rick Perlstein, Campaign for America’s Future

Katha Pollitt, The Nation

David Roberts, Grist

Thomas Schaller, Columnist, the Baltimore Sun

Adele Stan, The Media Consortium

Jonathan Stein, Mother Jones Magazine

Mark Thoma, The Economist’s View

Cenk Uygur, The Young Turks

Tracy Van Slee, The Media Consortium
Kai Wright, The Root

Other media/commenter types wanting to sign on should send an email to abcletter@henryfarrell.net

{ 31 comments }

1

Flippanter 04.18.08 at 5:47 pm

Milhouse: Why don’t we put it on the internet?

Bart: No, we need to reach people whose opinions really matter.

2

MR. Bill 04.18.08 at 5:55 pm

It wouldn’t take Poirot (or Miss Marple) to see the crime here.

3

Dave Maier 04.18.08 at 6:31 pm

Re: Berube – when I was at Penn they used to wear t-shirts that said “Not Penn State.” Rude, but there it is. (The other credential is the important one anyway.)

4

Henry 04.18.08 at 6:44 pm

urgh – that mistake is my fault – I will ensure its correction instanter

5

richard 04.18.08 at 7:43 pm

watching the daily show last night, I suddenly wondered if the whole thing had been orchestrated just to get those clips of Obama stuttering incoherently – a kind of reverse interrogation technique, if you will, where you bore the victim with trivia for an hour before hitting him with something that initially seems more substantive, but is actually just as slippery on the mind.

6

Michael Bérubé 04.18.08 at 7:49 pm

Thanks for the correction, Henry! I like it here in the heartland where we’re not bitter. I wouldn’t live with you decadent elites on the coasts anyway.

Dear old State thanks you too.

7

christian h. 04.18.08 at 8:17 pm

Do any of the undersigned ever wear a flag pin? I think not! So how are we supposed to take them seriously?

8

Grand Moff Texan 04.18.08 at 8:28 pm

If either Gibson or Stephanopoulos had lived in Virginia in the 1930’s, they would have been surgically sterilized.
.

9

anon 04.18.08 at 8:38 pm

Why don’t they open the debates up to the public?? Why not give Americans two hours to submit questions and then air those questions for the candidates to answer?

I don’t live in the U.S. so I don’t know if this already goes on down there, but this system works well in Canada…we only have to deal periodically with air-head journalist questions.

10

robert 04.18.08 at 9:21 pm

uuuuuuuhhhhh….. those are NOT “mainstream” journos.

11

Ben Alpers 04.18.08 at 9:24 pm

Why not put the League of Women Voters in charge of the presidential debates again?

Things have been going steadily downhill since the two major parties insisted on running their own general election debates in 1988.

12

Trey 04.18.08 at 9:35 pm

You may be interested in reading the debate about this (in which I participated) over at Marginal Revolution.

13

Markup 04.18.08 at 10:18 pm

Some might say there is a word for folk who regularly repeat the same action and expect a different outcome, and others might say there is some wisdom in the chorus of Spanish Pipedream

14

Martin Bento 04.18.08 at 10:54 pm

While it has no place in this petition, one thing that concerns me about the previous thread on this tragedy is that most seem to postulate that the debate was equally unfair to both candidates. There is a reason that Clinton, her surrogates, and most of her online supporters are defending the debate, and Obama and his people are not, and it is not that Clinton and her people are all idiots. The purpose of the debate was to skewer Obama, and the Tuzla question directed at Clinton was a token – a figleaf to defend a claim of balance, much as you will find on Fox.

Clinton supporters online are now claiming that Clinton has gotten this throughout the campaign, but I would like to see the transcripts. Look at the the 90’s classics that haven’t come up: Did the flashes on the Waco FLIR footage indicate that the government fired incendiaries? Did Clinton overlook cocaine traffic at Mena? Was Vince Foster really murdered? Why did Clinton collect FBI files on political figures? All this stuff could be revived, and will if Clinton were to secure the nom, but none of it is in the air now. This is worse than the “Obama is a Muslim” stuff that Clinton has winked at, because the latter would not be a serious offense even if true, whereas most of the accusations against the Clintons would be serious, some extremely serious, if true.

Obama is no radical, but he has a different power base, and clearly some powerful people are threatened by that. Where he signed his warrant, though, IMO, is when he said a couple of days ago that he would prosecute crimes of the Bush Administration. Clinton’s failure to do this is what enabled this administration to exist, and I think much the same is expectedly, correctly, of this year’s Clinton.

15

mc 04.18.08 at 11:48 pm

I should declare first that I haven’t seen the debate or even read a full transcript. But while I applaud the sentiments expressed above, and wish you luck, is the air of surprise genuine, or a (legitimate) tactic? In the UK what is described here is exactly what I would expect: even apparently substantive policy questions, even on ‘serious’ programmes, are almost always fairly obviously motivated by a desire to produce a certain effect (‘u-turn’, ‘gaffe’, or just confusion or hesitation or apparent evasion) rather than an answer. Depressing, but hardly worthy of special comment. As I say, I haven’t seen it – perhaps it was truly egregious.

16

BEW 04.18.08 at 11:55 pm

Your letter of protest is very nice. Too bad you couldn’t have sent it in 10 or 15 debates ago when it might have made a difference. Oops! I forgot, that letter would have benefited the evil Clinton.

Never mind.

17

canadian 04.19.08 at 12:09 am

As per commenter no. 11 noted, instead of discussing why tabloid journalism maximizes the expected audience, the commentators complain about how ABC did not pander to the elite without self awareness.

18

qb 04.19.08 at 3:20 am

robert @ #10, uuuuuuuhhhhh….. those are NOT “mainstream” journos

uuuhh… who are you quoting here?

19

emt 04.19.08 at 3:37 am

I’m with #15. If this letter were honest it would have been sent a number of debates ago.

This debate had the largest audience of any of them so far. ABC is feasting on your outrage. For a change, let’s try a discussion of what can realistically be done to make future debates more interesting and substantive, and to keep our elections in general from becoming these money sucking black holes.

Oh, and try to find a few more women to sign will you? It would look better.

20

emt 04.19.08 at 3:41 am

Oops. I’m with #16. Sorry for the outrageous error!

21

Eamonn Fitzgerald 04.19.08 at 3:48 am

Stop whining! You sound like spoiled brats, which is what most lefties are, anyway. As John Harris and Jim Vandehei put it in Politico (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0408/9718.html): “In fact, the balance of political questions (15) to policy questions (13) was more substantive than other debates this year that prompted no deluge of protests. The difference is that this time there were more hard questions for Obama than for Clinton.”

22

Warren Terra 04.19.08 at 4:42 am

SPOILER ALERT – if you care about Agatha Christie’s 1936 work The ABC Murders.

Does the post title mean that the whole appearance of process in the debate was a smokescreen, and that the whole point of the exercise was, in fact, to metaphorically do away with ‘Bama?

(and yes, after 72 years, it’s not really a “Spoiler”, but I try)

23

JP Stormcrow 04.19.08 at 2:45 pm

when I was at Penn they used to wear t-shirts that said “Not Penn State.”

Yes, let’s see what that paragon of “truth to power” the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn had to say on the debate. Well, Factcheck did have its usual little nitpicky deconstruction of the candidates’ responses, “Taking Liberties in Philadelphia: Truth is not always self-evident in the latest Clinton-Obama debate.” and the main product that Annenberg has produced is a running track of voters’ perceptions of those bugaboos of media narrative, “trustworthiness”, “judgment” etc. So they are doing there usual job of missing the forest for the trees* and being useful idiots for the right and the media in their decontextualized game of “gotcha”.

So yeah, “Not Penn State”.

*I am of course being a trifle unfair, in a world with the Hoover Institute at Stanford, the Annenberg is a relatively minor blot on its parent institution, but given the incredible dynamics in evidence in the media in the last 15 years, they have basically just sat there with their thumb up their ass.

24

Michael Bérubé 04.19.08 at 3:10 pm

uuuuuuuhhhhh….. those are NOT “mainstream” journos.

Dang! There goes our credibility.

Stop whining! You sound like spoiled brats, which is what most lefties are, anyway.

Dang! There goes our appeal to people’s intelligence.

Oh, well. It was a good effort, everyone. But we know when we’ve been pwned.

25

JP Stormcrow 04.19.08 at 3:22 pm

Stop whining! You sound like spoiled brats

Yes, we need to learn from the opposition, steady quite confidence in the rightness of our people and positions*. Whining is for losers, winners go out and fuck the prom queen poor.

*Many examples to choose from on the other side, like their stoic reticence in the face of what they perceived as attacks on General Petraeus last year.

26

Order of Magnitude 04.19.08 at 9:28 pm

Henry, you’ve censored my previous post.

Well, why don’t you have the balls and call this blog an exercise in therapy for you and all the other inhabitants of your echo chamber?

By the way I am also an academic, I know about “academic freedom” so you are doing nothing new. And yet, this is so far from the ideals you ostensibly espouse.

27

Order of Magnitude 04.19.08 at 9:29 pm

This just went through… So here is the previous one:

What you people at the Nation, Am Prospect and CT don’t seem to understand is that socialist ideas, much as they appear beautifully coherent and ethically uplifting to you, hold no appeal to the American people.

Over this background, you are shocked, shocked, I say, when Obama is getting the media treatment that he was spared from so far.

Candidates were being unfairly roughed up by pompous asses in the media (“the only profession without professional standards” as George Soros put it once at a conversation in Berkeley), yet you didn’t care when the target was a Republican. You only care when the Socialist icon’s honeymoon is over.

Wake up babies, and don’t cry.

PS Open letters from “concerned intellectuals” are soooo funny (in a Popular Front kind of way).

28

freshlysqueezedcynic 04.19.08 at 10:30 pm

Oh, well. It was a good effort, everyone. But we know when we’ve been pwned.

As I believe the old saying goes, “We have no chance to survive, make our time.”

29

Michael Bérubé 04.19.08 at 11:18 pm

What you people at the Nation, Am Prospect and CT don’t seem to understand is that socialist ideas, much as they appear beautifully coherent and ethically uplifting to you, hold no appeal to the American people.

Quite true. We people have consistently failed to understand why The People have not risen as one to endorse Obama’s proposal to abolish private property and form autonomous worker’s collectives.

yet you didn’t care when the target was a Republican.

Not true! We deplore the media’s treatment of McCain.

By the way I am also an academic, I know about “academic freedom” so you are doing nothing new. And yet, this is so far from the ideals you ostensibly espouse.

Whenever a blog comment is held in moderation, John Dewey cries.

30

freshlysqueezedcynic 04.19.08 at 11:24 pm

The People have not risen as one to endorse Obama’s proposal to abolish private property and form autonomous worker’s collectives.

Damn! And here was me planning to support Obama simply on his keystone campaign promise of Getting Back At Whitey. But he’s a communist too? This is even better.

31

Quo Vadis 04.20.08 at 6:25 am

when I was at Penn they used to wear t-shirts that said “Not Penn State.”

From Michael Bérubé’s website:

I teach American literature and cultural studies at Penn State University.

Somebody get Michael Bérubé a T-shirt.

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