All night long, every time I'd think about the ABC "debate" (sic), three reactions rose up - 1) grind my teeth to an angry pulp, 2) let my head explode, or 3) type something to let the steam out.
This morning, I still can't believe I was able to make it through 45 minutes of the broadcast.
This was topflight journalism at its worst. This was ABC's old, flimsy history with threadbare sizzle packaged as news. It was a tabloid debate with tabloid questions. Matt Drudge come to life on a respectable stage. From what I subsequently discovered, they actually, eventually got around to real issues -- after over an hour. But watching it for a mere 45 minutes made me feel almost seedy. I wanted to shower to get the smarm off. I love news, I admire professional journalists, I cherish the Mainstream Media, even when they flounder, because it is the core of democracy. But this was embarrassing. This was pathetic. This was just a cheesy press conference with cheesy questions.
Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos should be ashamed. I'm sure they have all of their reasons wrapped nicely with a bow, explaining why they asked what they asked and why it was proper and good and noble. Sorry, it wasn't. They put this on in prime time across the nation, and turned it into a slimy, Fox Network reality show. A cross between Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and Temptation Island. Something like, So, You Want to Be President?!
This was a disservice to America.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are running for President of the United States. It's a job that really, seriously matters. There are critically important issues facing the nation, right now. Last week, 81% of Americans said that they felt that the country had pretty seriously gotten off-track. There's the five-year Iraq War with 4,000 Americans dead and trillions spent. A national deficit pushing the country to recession. The G8 nations have expressed their tottering concern about the dollar. Global warming has put the entire globe at risk. The president and his top cabinet advisor are discovered in a memo to have discussed how to allow torture.
And for the first hour, the very first things these moderators could think of asking the two people in line to become the most powerful person in the world was -- what one of their pastors said? Who else also sat on a community board with him? Whether he used the best syntax in describing anger in America?
This was shameless. Hurtful.
And for all the post-debate commentators saying how "on the defensive" Barack Obama was -- most of them should be ashamed, as well, not pointing out how ghastly the questions were. They failed, as well.
What I saw during the "debate" (sic) made me completely agree with Senator Obama saying repeatedly that these questions are about things that don't matter in the lives of Americans. He wasn't "defensive." He was right. There's a difference. He answered the questions - same as he'd answered the questions before. But --
What his pastor said...Does Not Matter.
Who he served on a community board with...Does Not Matter.
Whether he is elitist for using the word "bitter"...Does Not Matter.
What matters is that there are angry people in Pennsylvania, and in America. What matters is what issues Barack Obama was dealing with on that community board he was a member of. What matters is what Barack Obama himself says.
What matters is the Iraq War. Torture. The Economy. Education. The price of gas. Domestic spying on Americans. Global warming. National security.
If Mr. Gibson and Mr. Stephanopoulos felt so-deeply compelled to toss in some of their Questions Lite -- even though they'd been asked and addressed repeatedly through the past weeks -- that's fine, ask them, at least the ones that dance on the edge of substance. But have the decency to hold them to later, after you've established the gravitas of the debate. Because otherwise, when you start by throwing out chum for the first hour, what you establish is that these are the things that "matter." And what comes later, nah, that's just afterthought.
Republican pundits do themselves no good pushing these empty topics, which they do only because they have no platform to run on. And Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos bought into it.
And Hillary Clinton did herself no good either by repeating that these things matter -- saying that "the Republicans will bring them up." News Flash: the Republicans will bring up just as much about her. And those won't substantively matter either. Or even necessarily be true.
Hillary Clinton has much good in her abilities. She has qualities that could make her an excellent president. But we are watching a person disintegrate before our eyes, throwing out the quality of her past and risking her future.
But this isn't about Hillary Clinton. This is about Charles Gibson, George Stephanopoulos and ABC "News." They were given a high responsibility to broadcast in the public interest. Instead, they spent the time in the empty gutter.
For the network of Lost and Desperate, they were both.
Follow Robert J. Elisberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/relisberg