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Even by the low standards of American TV news, the so-called journalists who ran last night's Democratic debate on ABC were a disgrace to their profession. TV critic Tom Shales nailed it in today's Washington Post in a column titled: In the Pa. Debate, ABC is the Clear Loser.

For the first 52 minutes of the two-hour, commercial-crammed show, [Charles] Gibson and [George] Stephanopoulos dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news. Some were barely news to begin with…

Amen! The tragedy is the missed chance to ask interesting questions that would let voters see how the candidates think on their feet and how much (or little) they know about the urgent problems that confront the U.S. and the world.
Questions are a powerful tool to inform and frame the debate. Here's one I wish had been asked: "Food shortages have led to protests and riots around the world. Explanations include high oil prices, rising global demand, crop failures due to climate change, and bio-fuel subsidies -- including U.S. subsidies for ethanol made from corn. At the same time, many Americans are angry about high gas prices and worried about dependence on foreign oil. What's your view on calls to end U.S. ethanol subsidies?"
Such a question is hardly far-fetched. The issue received lots of attention yesterday at a White House press briefing from serious working reporters who track real issues and do their homework. Too bad ABC didn't get some of them to run the debate!
The good news is that I'm not the only one feeling fed up with the networks and ABC in particular. By mid-afternoon today ABC's website had logged more than 15,000 comments, most of which seemed to be complaining about the moderators. (I’m adding mine and hope you will add one, too!) The live audience in the hall wasn't pleased either. The Huffinington Post has a great clip of Charles Gibson getting booed when he announces yet another commercial interruption just before the final set of questions.
Unfortunately, the other TV news network debates have been only marginally better when it comes to using the debates to help Americans make informed choices about the U.S. role in the world. Is it any wonder that the audience for TV network news is down to a mere 25 million, and falling by about a million a year?

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.