Dear Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos,
It’s hard to know where to begin with this, less than an hour after you signed off from your Democratic presidential debate here in my hometown of Philadelphia, a televised train wreck that my friend and colleague Greg Mitchell has already called, quite accurately, “a shameful night for the U.S. media.” It’s hard because — like many other Americans — I am still angry at what I just witnessed, so angry that it’s hard to even type accurately because my hands are shaking. Look, I know that “media criticism” — especially when it’s one journalist speaking to another — tends to be a genteel, collegial thing, but there’s no genteel way to say this.
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, rather than worry about who can give us the best deal on our capital gains taxes. But it’s even worse than that. By so badly botching arguably the most critical debate of such an important election, in a time of both war and economic misery, you disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself. Indeed, if I were a citizen of one of those nations where America is seeking to “export democracy,” and I had watched the debate, I probably would have said, “no thank you.” Because that was no way to promote democracy.
You implied throughout the broadcast that you wanted to reflect the concerns of voters in Pennsylvania. Well, I’m a Pennsylvanian voter, and so are my neighbors and most of my friends and co-workers. You asked virtually nothing that reflected our everyday issues — trying to fill our gas tanks and save for college at the same time, our crumbling bridges and inadequate mass transit, or the root causes of crime here in Philadelphia. In fact, there almost isn’t enough space — and this is cyberspace, where room is unlimited — to list all the things you could have asked about but did not, from health care to climate change to alternative energy to our policy toward China to the deterioration of Afghanistan to veterans’ benefits to improving education. You ignored virtually everything that just happened in what most historians agree is one of the worst presidencies in American history, including the condoning of torture and the trashing of the Constitution, although to be fair you also ignored the policy concerns of people on the right, like immigration issues.
You asked about gun control — phrased to try for a “gotcha” in a state where that’s such a divisive issue — but not about what we really care about, which is how to reduce crime. You pressed and pressed on those capital gains taxes, but Senators Clinton and Obama were forced to bring up the housing crisis on their own initiative.
Instead, you 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. I’m not saying that Rev. Wright and Bosnia sniper fire and “bitter” were never newsworthy — I myself wrote about all of these for the Philadelphia Daily News or my Attytood blog, back when they were more relevant — but the questions were stale yet clearly intended to gin up controversy (they didn’t, by the way, other than the controversy over you.) The final questions of that section, 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.
Are you even thinking when simply echo some of the vilest talking points from far-right talk radio? What are actually getting at — do you honestly believe that someone with a solid track record as a lawmaker in a Heartland state which elected him to the U.S. Senate, who is now seeking to make some positive American history as our first black president, is somehow un-American, or unpatriotic? Does that even make any sense? Question his policies, or question his leadership. because that is your job as a journalist. But don’t insult our intelligence by questioning his patriotism.
Here’s a question for you, George. Is it true that yesterday you appeared on the radio with conservative talk radio host Sean Hannity, and that you said you were “taking notes” when he urged you to ask a question about Obama’s supposed ties to a former member of the Weather Underground — which in fact you did? With all the fabulous resources of ABC News at your disposal, is that an appropriate way for a supposed journalist to come up with debate questions — by pandering to divisive radio shows?
And Charlie…could you be any more out of touch with your viewers? Most people aren’t millionaires like you, and if Pennsylvanians are losing sleep over economic matters, it is not over whether the capital gains tax will go back up again. I was a little shocked when you pressed and pressed on that back-burner issue and left almost no time for high gas prices, but then I learned tonight that you did the same thing in the last debate, that you fretted over that middle-class family that made $200,000 a year. Charlie, the nicest way that I can put this is that you need to get out more.
But I’m not ready to make nice. 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. You embarrassed some good people who work at ABC News — for example, the journalists who worked hard to break this story just last week — and you embarrassed yourselves. The millions of people who watched the debate were embarrassed, too — at the state of our political discourse, and what it has finally become, at long last.
Quickly, a word to any and all of my fellow journalists who happen to read this open letter: This. Must. Stop. Tonight, if possible. I thought that we had hit rock bottom in March 2003, when we failed to ask the tough questions in the run-up to the Iraq war. But this feels even lower. We need to pick ourselves up, right now, and start doing our job — to take a deep breath and remind ourselves of what voters really need to know, and how we get there, that’s it’s not all horse-race and “gotcha.” Although, to be blunt, I would also urge the major candidates in 2012 to agree only to debates that are organized by the League of Women Voters, with citizen moderators and questioners. Because we have proven without a doubt in 2008 that working journalists don’t deserve to be the debate “deciders.”
Charlie, I’m going to sign off this letter the way that you always sign off the news, that “I hope you had a great day.”
Because America just had a horrible night.