Media criticize ABC moderators for “flat-out repulsive” debate performances, “specious and gossipy” subject matter

Numerous media figures have criticized George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson, moderators of the Democratic presidential debate on ABC, or the subject matter of the event, in part or in whole, as “shoddy [and] despicable,” “specious and gossipy,” “cringe-worthy,” “banal,” consisting of “tabloid trivia,” “flat-out repulsive,” “embarrassing,” “seem[ingly] slanted against [Sen. Barack] Obama,” “shameful,” and “an outrage.”

Following the April 16 Democratic presidential debate on ABC, moderated by ABC News senior political correspondent George Stephanopoulos and World News Tonight anchor Charles Gibson, numerous media figures have criticized the moderators or the subject matter of the event, in part or in whole, as “shoddy [and] despicable,” “specious and gossipy,” “cringe-worthy,” “banal,” consisting of “tabloid trivia,” “flat-out repulsive,” “embarrassing,” “seem[ingly] slanted against [Sen. Barack] Obama,” “shameful,” and “an outrage.”

Washington Post television critic Tom Shales, in an April 17 article headlined "In Pa. Debate, The Clear Loser Is ABC," described the debate as “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.” Shales added that the debate “dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia” and “seemed slanted against Obama.”

Time magazine's Michael Grunwald, in an April 17 article headlined "The Democrats Play Trivial Pursuit," wrote, “Obama's memoir dripped with contempt for modern gotcha politics, for a campaign culture obsessed with substantively irrelevant but supposedly symbolic gaffes,” and added, “Last night at the National Constitution Center, at a Democratic debate that was hyped by ABC as a discussion of serious constitutional issues, America got to see exactly what Obama was complaining about.”

In an April 16 article on Editor & Publisher's website, Greg Mitchell wrote, “In perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years, ABC News hosts Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos focused mainly on trivial issues as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off in Philadelphia. They, and their network, should hang their collective heads in shame.”

In an April 16 entry on The Denver Post's Off the Record blog, Joanne Ostrow wrote of the debate, “The media has driven the obsession with gaffes, an obsession that cuts against all three presidential candidates. With endless hours to fill, cable in particular fans the flames, keeps petty spats alive and refuses to let go when there's a hint of controversy.” She added, “Blame ABC and Charlie Gibson for running a taped question from a Pennsylvania voter of whether or not Obama loves the American flag. This impugning of the candidate's patriotism is a red herring fueled by the network running the debate. Even as it was broadcast, you could feel a national sense of dread over how many hours will be devoted to flag pins in the weeks ahead.”

In an April 17 entry on Time's Swampland blog, headlined "A Lousy Debate ... plus Latest Column," Joe Klein wrote, “I was as dismayed with the second half of the debate -- the 'substantive' part -- as I was with the first. The ABC moderators clearly didn't spend much time thinking about creative substantive gambits. They asked banal, lapidary questions, rather than trying to break new ground.” [emphasis in original]

In an April 17 entry on the Philadelphia Daily News' Attytood blog, headlined “An open letter to Charlie Gibson and George Stephanapoulos [sic],” Will Bunch wrote, “With your performance tonight -- your focus on issues that were at best trivial wastes of valuable airtime and at worst restatements of right-wing falsehoods, punctuated by inane 'issue' questions that in no way resembled the real world concerns of American voters -- you disgraced my profession of journalism, and, by association, me and a lot of hard-working colleagues who do still try to ferret out the truth.” Bunch added, "[Y]ou wasted more than half of the debate -- a full hour -- on tabloid trivia that for the most part wasn't even that interesting, because most of it was infertile ground that has already been covered again and again and again." Bunch asserted that questions “asking Obama whether he thought Rev. Wright 'loved America' and then suggesting that Obama himself is somehow a hater of the American flag, or worse, were flat-out repulsive.”

Bunch also wrote, “What I just watched was an outrage. As a journalist, you appeared to confirm all of the worst qualities that cause people to hold our profession in such low esteem, especially your obsession with cornering the candidates with lame 'trick' questions and your complete lack of interest or concern about substance -- or about the American people, or the state of our nation.”

In an April 17 column in the Philadelphia Daily News headlined "We're still on the lapel thing? Seriously?" political columnist John Baer wrote, “Maybe it's me but last night's debate seemed too much about the 'gotcha' politics that campaigns and much of the national media thrives on and not enough of the actual problems facing Pennsylvania voters.” Baer also wrote, “Somewhere in the back of my mind is this notion that voters, whose economy is crippled by a senseless, seemingly endless war, whose personal budgets are crushed by the price of gasoline and the cost of health care and, for many, college tuition, maybe, just maybe, aren't so interested in flag pins.”