In Open Letter, Journalists Slam ABC Debate

| Fri Apr. 18, 2008 1:25 PM EDT

Below, an open letter from more than 40 journalists lamenting the petty, nearly substance-free debate ABC hosted on Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

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.

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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.

Spencer Ackerman, The
Washington Independent

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, Penn. State University
Joel Bleifuss, In These
Times

Sam Boyd, The American Prospect
Lakshmi Chaudry, In These Times
Michael Cohen, The New America Foundation
Lark Corbeil, Public News Service
Brad DeLong, Brad DeLong's
Semi-Daily Journal
and UC Berkeley
Adam Doster, In These Times
Kevin Drum, The Washington Monthly
Gerald Dworkin, UC Davis
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
Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University
Robert Greenwald, Brave New
Films

Chris Hayes, The Nation
Don Hazen, Alternet
Michael Kazin, Georgetown University
Ed Kilgore, The Democratic Strategist
Charlie Kireker, Air America Media
Richard Kim, The Nation
Ezra Klein, The American Prospect
Mark Kleiman, The Reality Based Community, UCLA
Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed
Ari Melber, The Nation
Rick Perlstein, Campaign for America's Future
Katha Pollit, The Nation
David Roberts, Grist
Thomas Schaller, Columnist, The Baltimore Sun
Adele Stan, The Media Consortium
Jonathan Stein, Mother Jones Magazine
Rinku Sen, ColorLines Magazine
Matthew Shugart, UC San Diego
Mark Thoma, The Economist's View
Michael Tomasky, The
Guardian

Cenk Uygur, The Young
Turks

Tracy Van Slyke, The Media
Consortium

Kai Wright, The Root
Matthew Yglesias, The Atlantic Monthly

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