Media were awash with charges this week that ABC News hosted little more than a gossipy game-show masquerading as a debate. Or maybe co-moderator George Stephanopoulos posed important questions that cut to the heart of electibility, as he later claimed. Either way, what did you learn that you'll take to the ballot box? Project for Excellence in Journalism associate director Mark Jurkowitz says that if the goal was to inform voters then ABC largely failed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Very soon, Pennsylvanians will cast their votes in what may be the decisive Democratic primary. It's been a long time since the last one. Not much has happened, beyond the usual shadowboxing commentators cling to in the dog days of a campaign.
But apparently, there was enough fodder for ABC newsmen Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos to hold what many Democrats have called the worst debate ever. Questions about Obama's pastor, his remark about bitter rural Americans, his lack of a flag pin, Clinton's claim to have braved the Bosnian sniper fire – these so-called electability issues took about 45 minutes to cover in what Nielsen Media Research reported was the most watched debate of the campaign – 10.7 million people.
The next morning, more than 14,000 comments had been posted on ABC News' website, mostly negative, but conservative pundits approved. Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said it did yield some nuggets. MARK JURKOWITZ: The actual newsmaking item that seemed to generate the most attention was the idea that Hillary Clinton did acknowledge that she thought Obama could actually beat - when pressed - could beat John McCain in the general election because this comes after a spate of coverage that suggests that her appeal to the Superdelegates has been he cannot win. [CLIP] GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think Senator Obama can do that? Can he win? HILLARY CLINTON: Yes, yes, yes. Now, I think that I can do a better job. [END CLIP] MARK JURKOWITZ: So in terms of somebody saying something that actually seemed newsworthy, that was number one. Number two was the sense that Barack was very much on the defensive, unhappy and sort of back on his heels in this particular debate. [CLIP]
BARACK OBAMA: Well, I think there's no doubt that I can see how people were offended. It's not the first time that I've made, you know, a statement that was mangled up. It's not going to be the last. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then do you half agree with the remarks of conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, who said, "I understand the complaints but I thought the questions were excellent. The journalist's job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities." And, he went on, "Almost every question tonight did that. The candidates each looked foolish at times, but that's their own fault." MARK JURKOWITZ: The idea that it's the questioner's job to make candidates feel uncomfortable might be overstating it. The idea of a good debate is to keep candidates on their toes, to not let them evade critical issues, to try and flesh out their positions. It's not their job to throw at candidates everything that they suspect the opposition party in theory might throw at them in a general election.
So one of the weaker defenses, I think, that ABC had about some of this was the idea that we were just raising issues that the Republicans are going to raise in the fall. Suggesting that you are the surrogate for the opposition party and that's one of your roles in a debate, that's a questionable sentiment on their part. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it was even more questionable because Stephanopoulos, earlier in the day, was on a radio show with conservative pundit Sean Hannity who told them to ask the question about William Ayres, the former member of the radical anti-Vietnam War group the Weathermen. It seemed to come out of the blue, but it came from Sean Hannity. We have a clip of that. [CLIP] SEAN HANNITY: The only time he's ever been asked about his association with Bill Ayres, the unrepentant terrorist from the Weather Underground, who, on 9/11, of all days, in The New York Times was saying, I don't regret setting bombs. I don't think we did enough.
When asked about it by the politico, David Axelrod said they have a friendly relationship and that they had done a number of speeches together and that they sat on a board together. Is that a question you might ask? GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOUS: Well, I'm taking notes right now. [END CLIP] MARK JURKOWITZ: The idea that the question came from Sean Hannity is not outrageous. The real question is, was it a legitimate question to ask somebody about their relationship with somebody who did something 40 years ago? I would consider that one a stretch. And I think that's one of the issues that then comes out of the debate for ABC and the candidates.
Based on what Barack Obama has done subsequent to the debate, it seems like his campaign feels like they will get the most traction by frankly making fun of the debate and suggesting that this is sort of a typical distraction from the public's business. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the significance of lapel accessories? When we got to the taped questions from ordinary voters, and they were selected by ABC - MARK JURKOWITZ: Yeah. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - they were also questions about gaffes and image – you know, Hillary's trip to Bosnia and the absence of a flag pin on Obama's lapel. [CLIP] FEMALE ‘ORDINARY VOTER’: Senator Obama, I have a question and I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know that these questions came out of the mouth of ordinary voters. I just find it hard to believe that they represent the mainstream. MARK JURKOWITZ: Well, I think that's a very good point. One would have to be a little bit suspicious that ABC selected the flag pin question because it sort of fit with what they were trying to do in that overall debate, and seemed to be part and parcel of too much of the tone of that debate.
Had it been a question inserted in a more well-rounded debate, I don't think we'd be taking about it today. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, after the question was asked, Charles Gibson said, you know, it comes up again and again when we talk to voters, and, as you may know, it's all over the Internet. [CLIP] CHARLES GIBSON: And it's something of a theme that Senators Clinton and McCain's advisors agree could give you a major vulnerability if you're the candidate in November. How do you convince Democrats that this would not be a vulnerability? [END CLIP] MARK JURKOWITZ: One of the problems you have with a debate at this juncture in the campaign is there have been, what, 20, 21 debates between these candidates? It's an arguable proposition at this point that you'd need any more, period.
So the pressure on ABC and on Stephanopoulos and Gibson to run a debate very late in the game that's going to make news, that's going to somehow shake up the dynamic at this 11th hour, that's kind of one of those internal journalistic pressures that can sometimes lead to bad results.
And you have to sort of sense, on one level, that ABC went into this debate saying, what can we do that no one else has done so far. BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, fundamentally it's about a public service, isn't it? MARK JURKOWITZ: It is about a public service. And the context of this debate is on the eve of their very important, possibly decisive primary in this long fight – this is not a game for insiders, it's not a game of gotcha. It's not supposed to be some coded secret message to the Superdelegates about electability. The goal of the debate is to educate the American public and give them as informed a choice as they can get when they go to the ballot box. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And did this debate do that? MARK JURKOWITZ: No, it certainly didn't succeed as well as it could have. I don't think there's any doubt about that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you so much. MARK JURKOWITZ: Thanks. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.