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In a Final Analysis: For ABC, A Missed Opportunity

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So, seen any good debates lately?

Wait, stop. Of course, we know the answer. You haven't. Not unless you happened to host your own in Second Life or something, or maybe catch the Compassion Forum from a week ago, which was not technically, a debate, but was -- at times -- technically, "good."

By contrast, ABC hosted a debate this week and it had all the hallmarks of frustration and failure. It was lazy in its execution, obsessed with the small-minded dross of process and scandal, incoherent in its approach to issues, and openly hostile to the interests of voters. Prior to the debate, I sent an email to my colleague and friend, Rachel Sklar, predicting that the balance of the questions would favor electoral process and media obsession questions to the detriment of issues of the public interest. As the debate started to unfold, I realized, "Wow. The story tomorrow will be how resolutely awful this debate was." History shall reflect that on both matters, I was absolutely, one-hundred percent correct.

The debate has its defenders, most notably David Brooks, because wherever there is need for dimwitted non-thought, he is there. Also, Washington DC's most navel-gazing of the wonkdweebs, Politico's John Harris and Jim VandeHei, who say ALL criticism of the debate stems from an Obama-besotted media (wrong) that has never been anything but kind to the Illinois senator (wrong: madrassa, secret Muslim, pledge of allegiance) and it's time that Obama's most fervent supporters grew up (right, and you can begin that process by reading Alex Balk's post debate reaction).

Well, the wonderful thing about my own criticism of the debate is that as far as the supporters of Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama are concerned, they can find in it, a critique both exacting, ecumenical, and primarily concerned with the way Gibson and Stephanopoulos' shoddy product was an insult to viewers of all stripes: Clintonistas, Obamaniacs, Don't-Care-Who-Just-Give-Me-A-Nominee-ites, Still Clinging To My John Edwards Wishful Thinkers, even lonely, uncommitted houseplants that just want to quietly photosynthesize in the corner of the room. So, one can, in fact, slag ABC's performance without picking a side in the race. (Though, that one side, sure could make a solid case!) And with that out of the way, we return to the larger ramifications of this debate.

I'm not just disappointed, I'm frankly, really surprised that ABC failed so completely in their task. This was a network news outfit's chance to shine, and get back some of the vitality and importance they'd been ceding in recent years. If you check out the Project for Excellence in Journalism's "State of the News Media" for 2008, network evening news continues to decline in popularity. ABC is often the most stable outfit of the three, but they face the same challenges: against the 24/7 cable outlets, the networks can't be the fastest, and often aren't the first. The only choice is to be better.

And that's why this ABC debate was so surprising! For some reason, Gibson and Stephanopoulos chose to spend the entire first hour of the debate rehashing the cable news' greatest hits of pointless obsession: Tuzla, flag pins, Reverend Wright, polls and electability debates. None of it was new. None of it was even interesting, anymore. The public had spent almost a month and a half having these topics examined, dissected, deconstructed, and beaten, as with a cricket bat, into the ground.

From what I've been able to gather, it can take a lot of significant time and labor to craft a set of debate questions. It's actually possible to spend a considerable number of man-hours, carefully contemplating the right range and mix of questions and laboring over the precise language. Not so the ABC debate! That slate of questions could have been come up with in the time it takes Stephanopoulos and Gibson to take a ride in an elevator together or pop a squat (hopefully, separately).

Cheap, lazy, and embarrassing. And you could see every bit of that combo platter up on the screen...especially with those astoundingly silly bumpers that purposelessly quoted the Constitution. Still, the whole tatty effort has been defended at length by ABC. None moreso than Stephanopoulos, who has said that the questions he's been asking are the ones that will keep coming up, and that a voter can assess a candidate's toughness by how well these particular ones are answered.

This defense is entirely incoherent. In the first place, the fact that questions have been asked and will continue to be asked does not in any way obligate ABC to do the same! What's special about being the latest clown in a long line of clowns to ask the same question? And if Stephanopoulos -- or anyone in the media, for that matter -- actually believe that their role is to somehow "toughen up" the candidate, well, they need to understand that this is a fundamental misread of their job. If Charlie and George want to toughen up candidates, they need to go work on a campaign. (Though, you should note that -- as we learned earlier this week - when Stephanopoulos was working on campaigns, he was happy to whine about the media.) As long as they work for ABC news, their job is to serve the public interest.

They could have -- indeed, should have -- with a more probing set of questions. And, believe me, it can be done! Check out the quality of questions asked at the CNN Compassion Forum. By the guest speakers, anyway -- CNN's moderators similarly trended toward the useless. The guest interlocutors, however, asked the candidates questions that showed great depth and considerable variety, mined topics that have received less attention, were just the sort of "tough" questions the candidates need to face, and -- not coincidentally -- elicited a better set of responses from the candidates.

Some of our commenters have been way ahead, and thinking in depth, on this matter. I've seen suggested lines of inquiry that would have done us all a world of good last Wednesday night. Will the candidates roll back the unprecedented number of powers claimed by the Bush White House? How will the United States deal with an unfolding global hunger crisis? What actions can we take today to change Cuba's political destiny? If we want to get a gauge of the candidate's electability against McCain, don't put their opponent on the spot, use the policies that McCain has put forward! Ask Clinton and Obama to respond to McCain's gas tax holiday, his approach to the housing crisis, or his responses to the recent testimony of David Petraeus. No one need worry about whether or not attention will continue to be paid to issues like Bosnia or Reverend Wright, each of those cable nets still have one hundred and sixty-eight hours each week to fill.

Strangely enough, ABC's failures have created an interesting opportunity for the news division that needs a game-changer the most: CBS News. Should there be a debate before the North Carolina primary, it will be the Eye's to manage. The venture, as of right now, still seems a little ill-starred -- Clinton looked to bail on the debate initially, but now she's the one who's agreed to participate while Obama hedges -- but if CBS and Katie Couric get the opportunity to host a debate, ABC's failings have set their news division up to shine by comparison. In fact, if Obama really is feeling slighted by ABC News, he should be going out of his way to ensure that CBS's debate comes off, because they have the means and the motivation to put Gibson and Stephanopoulos to shame. Well, whatever part of them hasn't been put to shame already, anyway.