Politics & Policy

Debating Obama Drama

Were Stephanopoulos and Gibson really out of line?

The gnashing of teeth and rending of sackcloth over last Wednesday’s debate continues unabated. Tom Shales, the Washington Post TV critic, declared the performance of moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos “despicable.” A group of left wing journalists is circulating a petition declaring the debate “a revolting descent into tabloid journalism and a gross disservice to Americans.” Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher called it “perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years.”

While I’ll be the first to admit that Stephanopoulos having a role in a debate in which Hillary Clinton participates is legitimate reason to complain, we can do without the hyperbole. What about the Republican YouTube debate of last fall, during which questions came directly from Democratic opponents’ campaigns? Moreover, what about the plight of Republicans, who have been subjected to numerous interviews and debates with Democratic partisans including Stephanopoulos, Tim Russert, and Chris Matthews? Is there a single Republican partisan on the staff of a major network-news team who enjoys status equal to these three – let alone has had the opportunity to moderate a presidential debate?

Whatever complaints Democrats and lefty bloggers have with any of those broadcasters seem at odds with their silence in years past. Of course, in days gone by, they couldn’t conceive of a situation in which having a liberal partisan operative, such as Stephanopoulos, in a journalistic catbird seat, would hurt their cause. So they raised no objection when he was assigned one of the most covetable posts in the world of political journalism. When Matthews moderated a couple of Republican debates, no one on the left questioned the fairness of a moderator who routinely spouts such plainly tendentious nonsense as “God help us if we had Cheney during the Cuban missile crisis. We’d all be under a parking lot.” Republicans soldier on. Any Republican who sits down on This Week, Meet The Press, or Hardball stares down the barrel of an ideologically loaded gun; Stephanopoulos asks some tough questions of the presumptive Democratic frontrunner and a chorus of complaints about being pistol whipped arises from the masses.

The ginned up outrage over ABC does serve one useful purpose – confirming how in the tank the media is for Obama. Fortunately, a few brave souls are willing to speak out. “Last fall, when NBC’s Tim Russert hazed Clinton with a bunch of similar questions — a mix of fair and impertinent — he got lots of gripes from Clinton supporters,” observed Politico editors John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei. “But there was nothing like the piling on from journalists rushing to validate the Obama criticisms and denouncing ABC’s performance as journalistically unsound.”

Harris and VandeHei’s expert opinion as to the source of this discrepancy? “The difference seems clear: Many journalists are not merely observers but participants in the Obama phenomenon.” Of course as courageous and on target as Harris and VandeHei are here, media bias is a more ingrained phenomenon then even they realize. In that same piece, Harris and VandeHei note the outrage over the past week’s debate is present because:

But it has only been in this campaign cycle that we have seen the liberal echo chamber — from websites like The Huffington Post and cable commentators like Keith Olbermann — be able consistently to drive a campaign story line. In the past, it was only the conservative echo chamber — Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh — who regularly drove stories in new media and old media alike. This is a huge shift.

But wait — earlier in the same week, here’s how the two men described the situation prior to this “huge shift” as it relates to Kerry and Gore’s losing candidacies:

The last two Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John F. Kerry, were both military veterans, and both had been familiar, highly successful figures in national politics for more than two decades by the time they ran.Both men lost control of their public images to the right-wing freak show — that network of operatives and commentators working mostly outside of the mainstream media — and ultimately lost their elections as many voters came to see them as elitist, out-of-touch, phony, and even unpatriotic.

Indeed, VandeHei and Harris have used the term “freak show” in this context several times, ever since Harris introduced the term in a book he wrote with Time’s Mark Halperin. In response, as Byron York slyly noted, “I have no problem with the term ‘echo chamber.’ I use it myself. But I believe this is the same phenomenon which, when it was dominated by the right, Harris referred to as ‘the freak show.’” That’s right, even an otherwise decent column by two respected journalists devoted to calling out the press on their brazen media bias – is itself tainted by obvious media bias.

From much of the media’s perspective, the real problem with Gibson and Stephanopoulos was that their questions made Obama look vulnerable. But if Stephanopoulos’s question about Obama’s relationship with former Weather Underground member William Ayers was so outlandish, why did the candidate have such obvious difficulty offering an explanation?

The fact remains that the question was fair game. Barack Obama worked — for years — on the board of a charitable foundation in Chicago with an unrepentant domestic terrorist, who as recently as 2001 stated he did not regret being involved in the bombing of the Pentagon and a number of other important government sites but rather, felt “we didn’t do enough.” Hardly a flimsy charge of guilt by association.

Obama’s association with Ayers doesn’t make him a terrorist, but it does certainly call into question his judgment and character — two issues that those criticizing Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos would rather we not discuss following Wednesday’s debate, especially considering Obama’s unsteady answer, and perhaps more importantly, his obvious frustration with the question.

Given Obama’s clear frontrunner status and the very real perception that the press has been soft on Obama, was Stephanopoulos really that out of line? For those on the Left who still can’t accept that such questions require attention, the debacle should provide a healthy lesson in what it feels like to be a Republican for the other 364 days in the year.

— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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