The Gibson Effect
I agree that last night was an historic moment, where the national press truly jumped the shark and crossed over from a series of newsgathering organizations to the reincarnation of Rona Barrett. Because they are so contemptuous of Americans (they always justify their substance-free remarks by saying "This is what people are talking about") they seek not to inform but demonize, not to set out the major issues but to tear down the major candidates.
And lest one think that the first half of the debate featured the tabloid questions and the second half the "substance," uh, no.
It is certainly true that a case could be made that the moderators explicitly set out to frame even the supposedly "substantive" questions according to GOP designs. The implicit presumption of success in Iraq when, nearly an hour into the debate, the moderators finally deigned to mention the defining current event of this campaign. Gibson, as moderator, lied outright about the supposed effects of capital gains tax cuts, and dogged the candidates over it to a greater extent than any other economic issue: does he really believe that of all the economic challenges facing this nation, the most pressing of them is supplication towards a decade-long Republican bugaboo? Gun control? Affirmative action? These are the issues that are most compellingly on the minds of Democratic primary voters, in 2008? Or were the questions taken from a 1992 time capsule, insightful probes gathering dust for a decade and a half until they could find network moderators desperate enough to dig them up again?
It wasn't just embarrassing in part, but in the whole; a total capitulation of all responsibility as the fourth estate and a salient example of why we may need to actually strike out the "freedom of the press" part of the First Amendment.*
The thing is that, outside of Bobo Brooks, who's just as contemptuous of the American people as Gibson and Stephanopoulos are, most people noticed. They noticed because this is not an isolated event. In fact this campaign season has witnessed a gradually decreasing pattern leading to the irrelevance you saw on display last night. As issues and challenges faded away, the entire campaign - all of it - is predicated on gaffes and misstatements and Russert-like gotcha questions. Not as portion of it, not the last five minutes of the broadcast but all of it. The third paragraph of Tom Shales' jeremiad is technically correct but besides the point.
When Barack Obama met Hillary Clinton for another televised Democratic candidates' debate last night, it was more than a step forward in the 2008 presidential election. It was another step downward for network news -- in particular ABC News, which hosted the debate from Philadelphia and whose usually dependable anchors, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, turned in shoddy, despicable performances.
For the first 52 minutes of the two-hour, commercial-crammed show, Gibson and Stephanopoulos dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news. Some were barely news to begin with.
The fact is, cable networks CNN and MSNBC both did better jobs with earlier candidate debates. Also, neither of those cable networks, if memory serves, rushed to a commercial break just five minutes into the proceedings, after giving each candidate a tiny, token moment to make an opening statement. Cable news is indeed taking over from network news, and merely by being competent.
CNN and MSNBC are no better; the ABC debate was a prime-time version of their substance-free midday programming, replete with everything but a live shot of a burning house somewhere.
The real question is whether this will spark a backlash, the way the media's sexist treatment of Sen. Clinton provoked a backlash in the New Hampshire primary.
Will the Keystone State's Democratic voters -- remember, these are Democrats, not general-election voters -- rebel against the negativity, the "gotcha"-ism, the endless drumbeat of cynical word-twisting and opportunistic gaffe-pouncing, that has become the central operating principle of the Clinton campaign, and vote instead for the man whose message of "hope" and "change" and a "new kind of politics" so inspired voters in the early stages of this nomination contest? If there's ever a moment for that message to gain new traction, it would be now [...]
One of the night's most popular answers, according to WPVI's undecided voter reaction tracker thingy, was this response by Obama to a question about his relationship to former Weather Underground bomber William Ayers:
George, but this is an example of what I'm talking about.
This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.
And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense, George. ...
[T]his kind of game, in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, is somehow -- somehow their ideas could be attributed to me -- I think the American people are smarter than that. They're not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn't.
Hillary's response? "Well, I think that is a fair general statement, but I also believe that Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position." The undecided-voter meter plummeted.
Perhaps I'm being a pollyanna-ish member of the Cult of Obama here, but I think there is a real chance the voters of Pennsylvania will rise up and, once and for all, reject the endless, party-destroying "gotcha" tactics of Hillary Clinton, and choose the candidate of "change." It would be the backlash to end all backlashes. I'm not predicting it. But I think it could happen.
I think it's vital that it does happen, to discredit these tactics. If the blinders would come off of Clinton supporters and Obama supporters, Democrats would agree that this debate represents a failure of democracy. Corporate media will only get the message if their stock plummets, so I urge everyone to sell Disney stock and send it crashing. But they also made a lot of money last night off their ignorance and sensationalism. The way to send a message is really to reject that. The "b-but the Republicans will come after us in November" canard is ridiculous. That doesn't mean it has to be legitimized. Republican-style attack politics was actually rejected by voters in 2006. Now it's time to reject the media.
* - That's not what I advocate, of course, but let's recognize that national broadcasters use public airwaves and make a commitment to use them in the public interest, which clearly they have failed in doing, so there's a compelling argument to be made to the FCC for a breach in licensing agreements.