AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2008

Silly in Philly   

Online Exclusive » ABC’s dreadful debate moderators bring us a night to forget.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

Forget Clinton and Obama. The real loser of the Wednesday night debate in Philadelphia was journalism.

The relentless rat-a-tat-tat of questions about campaign distractions by ABC moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos was a vivid illustration of what is so wrong with so much that passes for political coverage today.

There they were in all their glory, all the played out, warmed over flaps that the media spend way too much time obsessing over.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The illusory Bosnian snipers. Bittergate. And best of all--flag pins. Flag pins!!!??!?

Plus a new one, Obama's acquaintance in the Weather Underground, apparently dredged up and catapulted into prominence by Fox stalwart Sean Hannity.

The nation is mired in a misguided war in Iraq. The economy is in freefall. Health care is a disgrace. But you never would have known it from what seemed like the first six or seven hours of the debate. Call it "Silly in Philly."

While Clinton had a brief moment in the sun apologizing for her phony account of ducking sniper fire in the Balkans, most of the heat was directed at Obama, who looked very much like a guy who wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Clearly Gibson and Stephanopoulos didn't get the memo about the media being in the tank for Obama and all.

It's not that the gaffes aren't worthy of coverage. Of course they are. Obama's remarks (in San Francisco, no less) about the down-and-out Pennsylvania yokels clinging to their guns and their God sounded awfully condescending, not the kind of stuff you expect to hear from a man who says his mission is to bring us all together.

And Clinton's puffed-up account of terror on the tarmac was the last thing she needed, reinforcing as it did her image as a person who plays fast and loose with the truth.

These episodes tell us something about the candidates. They are fair game.

The problem comes when they are beaten to death, played and replayed, to the point that they overshadow everything else.

It's popular to focus on cable TV as the major culprit in this trivialization of politics. And it deserves plenty of the blame.

But last night, thanks to the awful performances by ABC's Gibson and Stephanopoulos, it was a network that wasn't ready for prime time.