Lessons from Philadelphia

flagpin.gifFifty-one minutes. If this was an answer on “Jeopardy!”, the question would be “How much time at the start of ABCNews’ two-hour Democratic presidential debate was spent on “gotcha” politics?” Unfortunately, this isn’t a game – but the jeopardy we face as a nation is all too real – a third Bush term, embodied in a McCain victory. And, this farce of “gotcha” politics only helps the Republican Senator from Arizona.

The ABCNews debate in Philadelphia and the behavior of moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanolpoulos is indicative of the role mainstream media is playing this election year. It is not in the role of informing the electorate, but the behavior you would expect from third rate tabloid hacks covering the latest misadventures of Paris, Britney or Lindsay. And, this behavior has a detrimental impact on the institution of American journalism and a well-informed American electorate.

In those initial 51 minutes, Gibson and Stephanopoulos did not ask a single question on issues of real concern to Democratic voters in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country. Those 51 minutes could have been dedicated to asking Senators Clinton and Obama about a wide range of issues: the environment, the economy, foreign policy, the war in Iraq, energy policy, education, health care, potential Supreme Court choices. But no. Gibson and Stephanopoulos chose to focus on flag pins, obscure associations and a re-hash of old news that has been discussed to death for the last six weeks. In fact, Senator Obama tried seven times to get Gibson and Stephanopoulos to ask the candidates about issues that matter to the voters of Pennsylvania and the United States, but to no avail.

It was an outrageous display that got me so mad, I felt compelled to write a letter of complaint to ABCNews. And, apparently, others (to paraphrase the immortal words of Paddy Chayefsky) have had enough and are not going to take it any more. Thousands of people have complained on ABCNews’ blog; MoveOn.org has organized a petition drive and the Courage Campaign will be protesting outside ABC’s Burbank headquarters on the afternoon of April 18th.

And while the the ABCNews debate was so brazen that it has drawn the attention of the general public and even the punditocracy, it is, unfortunately, just the latest and most blatant example of how badly this election has been covered by the mainstream media.

Ironically, some real news did come out of this debate: Senator Clinton’s comments on Iran. Senator Clinton said that as President, if other countries should start fighting in the Middle East, the US should incur “massive retaliation” to an Iranian attack, and made a proposal similar to McCain’s “League of Democracies.” This should have been the lead story of the debate. Only MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” took notice. The rest of the mainstream media has ignored this important story.

Both the behavior of Gibson & Stephanopoulous during the debate and the subsequent lack of substantive coverage of the real story that came from this debate highlights what is generally wrong with the mainstream media. With the exception of Olbermann, there are no Upton Sinclairs nor Edward R. Murrows in our mainstream media who actually cover the news or speak truth to power. Instead, the mainstream media has become nothing more than an echo chamber for “gotcha” politics and flacks for the Washington political establishment. The 51 minutes of the ABCNews debate from Philadelphia is a wake up call. The question is: Will the American press and the American public heed it or continue to hit the snooze button?

– Tony Scudellari

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