By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Stephanopoulos doesn’t get it

George Stephanopoulos, fresh from his Stephen Colbert shtick (right), tells the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz that Barack Obama deserved to get tougher questions than Hillary Clinton at Wednesday’s debate because he’s the front-runner. Kurtz writes:

“Senator Obama is the front-runner,” said Stephanopoulos, the network’s chief Washington correspondent and a former Clinton White House aide. “Our thinking was, electability was the number one issue,” and questions about “relationships and character go to the heart of it.”

Besides, he added, “you can’t do a tougher question for Senator Clinton than ‘six out of 10 Americans don’t think you’re honest.’ “

But the problem wasn’t that the questions were unfairly tilted against Obama; it’s that they were stupid and demeaning. Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson debased the process by mouthing Colbert-like parodies of Republican talking points as though they were actual questions.

“Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?” is not a question. “I want to know if you believe in the American flag” (from a Pennsylvania woman) is not a question. For that matter, “Six out of 10 Americans don’t think you’re honest” is not a question.

Does Stephanopoulos not understand this? Perhaps he does. Perhaps he realizes that he, Gibson and the debate producers screwed up big-time Wednesday night, and he’s just talking trash to Kurtz but will nevertheless learn from his mistakes.

If not — well, please, as Media Nation reader Peter Porcupine says, bring back the League of Women Voters.

More: Jim Romenesko rounds up the critics.

Illustration by Chris Arkwright, and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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15 Comments

  1. Lance

    As bad as the questions were, Gibson’s mention of Section II of the constitution during his VP question might have been the worst. Not only did the scenario not apply (under that clause, McCain would be the VP, not the other dem candidate) but it was repealed by the 12th Amendment in 1804.

  2. Bill

    Dan, it appears that you’re supporting Obama. Is that right?

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: I vote, but I “support” no one.

  4. Anonymous

    As I said in the post above… do liberals not understand this is what happens in every single Republican debate.Republicans had to tell the American public how many guns they owned and what model they were. If that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question, I don’t know what is.I think Gibson and Stephanopoulos did a fantastic job. I especially like when they pointed out that the lower the capital gains tax is the more revenue it collects. No other debate moderator would have the guts to stray from the typical liberal tax-and-spend philosophy to point that out. They let Democrats talk all debate about how they plan to double the capital gains tax – and fail to mention the simple economic fact that a higher capital gains tax means less revenue. Obama ended up saying that he believes in a higher capital gains tax because it’s more fair. In other words, he means he wants to tax for the sake of taxing. It was a telling exchange that may have sounded, to liberals, like a Republican talking point.

  5. Frankie_Bag_of_Doughnuts

    Oncew a Clinton Employee always….Georgie sure fulfilled his obligation to Bill and his outright man love for Sean Hanitty. He now has become the liberal version of Bill O’Reilly

  6. Robert Turnage

    Oh, George S. “understands” how cynical and debased his questions were— he just doesn’t care. His intention all along was to play “gotcha.” He has no interest in serious journalism, and never has. He’s always been a political hack. So why be surprised. The outrageous thing is why people like him are given the privilege of having broadcast shows.

  7. Neil

    Anon 12:46:…the simple economic fact that a higher capital gains tax means less revenue.Michael Dobbs in The Washington Post’s fact checker takes issue with this assertion. (I think this link will go stale soon but it’s there now.) Scroll to the entry at 9:20, and follow the link to the study by the Congressional Budget Office. It doesn’t seem to be such a simple economic fact after all.Also, to excuse these questions because you think it also happens to Republicans is only saying that two wrongs make a right.

  8. Joan Vennochi

    Dan: The flag pin question was silly. But I think questions about Rev. Wright and Ayers are fair game. Obama will be asked about both during the general election. He needs better answers than he had during the ABC debate. -Joan Vennochi

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Joan: Thanks for checking in. Obama certainly deserves to be asked tough questions. But I don’t think hitting him with the most boneheaded of Republican talking points is the way to do it.The Ayers stuff struck me as especially stupid. We got no indication that Obama knows Ayers well; maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. The fact that Bill Clinton pardoned several members of the Weather Underground suggests to me that such a question would more appropriately be aimed at Hillary Clinton.Finally, there’s the whole matter of asking questions that matter only to people who will be voting Republican no matter what, which is where Stephanopoulos and Gibson were going. By all means, ask questions that matter to people who might be genuinely undecided between McCain and Obama or Clinton. That’s not what we were hearing Wednesday night.Joan, why do you think there’s been such an outburst of protest directed at ABC? I’m not talking about the partisans — of course they’re going to protest. I’m talking about pundits like Tom Shales, Rem Rieder et al., who for all I know are liberals, but who have an excellent track record for separating fair from unfair and smart from dumb?

  10. Joan Vennochi

    Dan: I think the criticism is over the top, including your’s. There were some dumb questions and some not-so-dumb questions… just like every other debate. To call this one the “worst” makes no sense to me; it’s true only if a person is an Obama supporter and doesn’t like to see their candidate subjected to these lines of inquiry. As for Ayers, I think Obama does have some explaining to do. And maybe it was left to ABC to do it, because no one other than Sean Hannity pursued it previously, with an obvious Fox News bias. I also think it would have better if someone other than George Stephanopoulos was the one to ask him about it! I’m not saying I condemn Obama for the relationship with Ayers, just that as a journalist, I am curious about the true extent of it and think it’s a fair area of inquiry. The same would be true if Hillary Clinton or John McCain had such a relationship. Obama’s retort, about Bill Clinton pardoning two similar radicals was right on point. As a journalist, you don’t find it interesting that he launches a campaign in the living room of a guy who on 9/11 says he wishes his bombs did more damage? Obama was not in eighth grade at that time.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Joan: Now that I’ve read your column in today’s Globe, I can see that you believe it’s going to be 1988 all over again. You might be right. I hope you’re wrong.

  12. Joan Vennochi

    Dan, 1988 is ancient history. I think it easily could be 2004 all over again. And this time, the Republican is the war hero. True, he’s old,and pro-war, but still, that resonates with some voters. But, you didn’t answer my question. As a journalist, do you think we know everything there is to know about the Obama-Ayers relationship, in the years since 2001?

  13. Dan Kennedy

    Joan: Two responses.1. Kerry was attacked with lies in 2004. Are you suggesting that we need to fling lies at Obama (or Clinton) to see how they’ll react? I didn’t hear any actual lies Wednesday night, but I don’t get the Swift Boat analogy.2. No, I don’t think we know much about the Obama-Ayers relationship, assuming there is one. Apparently Stephanopoulos didn’t, either, until he was prompted by Sean Hannity. That calls for reporting, not for flinging stuff out there at a debate to see how Obama will react.

  14. Chris Arkwright

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