Last night, we witnessed the television journalism equivalent to FEMA's response to the Katrina disaster. And the faster we realize that's what happened, the faster we'll be able to save the socioeconomic fabric of our society.
The Katrina-level storm that is rocking America has only just started to come ashore. And saving the voting public -- and, by extension, the rest of America -- from drowning in a sea of irrelevant and, at times, false information is going to require that America's journalists be heroic in their efforts.
Regrettably, last night we did not see two heroic journalists in action. We saw two buffoons. The voting public was not served. It was played with. The National Enquirer meets the presidential election process. The insane concept of "policy discussion as food fight" - that Jon Stewart so memorably challenged with his "You are hurting America" comments to the hosts of Crossfire in October of 2004 -- formed the central core in the minds of one of America's marquee news anchors and of the host of a major Sunday morning news show.
Yes, indeed. You did a heck of a job last night, Charlie and George.
Think my Katrina-level storm analogy is extreme? It's not. And I think the 80 plus percent of Americans who say our country is going in the wrong direction would agree with me.
Economically, we're now past the scenario in which people are losing their homes. As the New York Times reported on Tuesday, chains such as Zayles jewelry, Foot Locker, Ann Taylor and others are closing 100 or more stores in malls across the country. Sharper Image, Fortunoff, and Lillian Vernon are just three big businesses that have filed for bankruptcy. When you go to the mall, it's going to look very different in the months to come.
High oil prices are forcing food prices up across America, and growing corn as an alternative fuel source (rather than for food) is impacting food prices across the world. (By the way, in 2006 agricultural economist Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute predicted this would happen.)
Then there are the effects the Iraq War is having and will have on America. The readiness of our Army is so low, we can't handle a new military situation of any significant size. There is the Three Trillion Dollar cost of the war and how our economy will handle that.
There is much more... from how many kids are dropping out of high school... to the lack of funds for infrastructure repair... to our "broken" Constitution (thanks to the Bush administration's abuse of executive power).
Gee, you'd have thought that - given they were broadcasting from The National Constitution Center - either Charlie Gibson or George Stephanopoulos would have raised the subject of restoring the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.
But I guess I should have known that wouldn't happen when Charlie started the evening by welcoming his audience to the "National Constitutional - not "Constitution" - Center".
When Charlie couldn't even get the name of where he was right, that should have clued us in to the quality of what we were about to hear.
Taken separately, each of these topics could have been the subject of an entire debate. But combined into an overlapping and interrelated whole, they make up the macro, "perfect storm" topic of the dangerous place in which America finds itself as it approaches one of the most critical elections ever.
But what came up instead was what was on Charlie and George's "Enquiring minds". Not what was on the minds of the voters.
The Rev. Wright, non-existing Bosnian snipers, "bittergate", will Barack and Hillary take Mario Cuomo's advice and run as a joint ticket... and let's not forget what Charlie Gibson thinks is "all over the internet": whether Barack Obama wears an American flag lapel pin! And then there was George Stephanopoulos's specific "right wing" moment: Asking Barack if - essentially - the fact that he has some sort of social contact with a former Weatherman (and now respected member of the Chicago civic community) somehow disqualifies him from being president.
By their performances last night, you'd think Charlie and George don't know that 67 percent of all Americans believe "traditional journalism is out of touch with what Americans want from their news."
Or maybe they know but just don't care. After all, when you make the kinds of salaries they make, you can lose touch with the concerns of ordinary American.
Or maybe the march of time since corporate restructuring at ABC first forced its news department to make a profit (written about in a book by former CBS News reporter Tom Fenton ) has finally succeeded in dumbing down the skill level of the professionals such as Charlie and George to such an extent that this is all they were capable of producing.
If that's the case, then we have truly reached the "Heck of a job, Brownie" moment in television journalism. And it may be what's true.
I'll end this essay by saying that - as angry as I am - I know that every failure is an opportunity for renewal. From this catastrophe, television journalism can still - at least potentially - recapture its former greatness. Edward R. Murrow may no longer be with us, but there is still time for the heads of the major network news divisions to realize that this is a Katrina-like situation for America's civic landscape. There is still enough time for heroic measures to be taken.
Perhaps a a coalition of American civic and journalism leaders could demand the creation of a bi-partisan, emergency effort to raise the standards of broadcast journalism.
Will this happen? I don't know. (Wal-Mart helped deliver drinking water to New Orleans, when FEMA was not able to do so. Maybe some business leader will rise to the challenge we face today in a similar way.)
But what I do know is that last night should be a huge wake up call for everyone who cares about America's future.
America was not served by what ABC News did last night.
And, in my opinion, American will not survive this Katrina-like, systemic crisis if the political reporting and debate moderating in the weeks and months ahead does not rise to the heroic standards that these times demand.
It is time for the buffoons to either change their ways or go.
It's time for heroic television journalism to rise from the ashes of last night's primary debate disaster.
To help inspire people to know we CAN have heroic television journalism -- even on ABC News -- below is a brief video of Barbara Walters remembering the late, great Peter Jennings (from the memorial on Larry King Live in Peter's honor).