(updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)
I was fortunate to have missed the Obama-Clinton "debate" last night because -- ironically enough -- I was speaking at a book event about the establishment media's essential role in propagating petty, insipid right-wing personality attacks in lieu of any substantive discussions of issues. Afterwards, I read the transcript of the debate and it's hard to know even what to say about it. Coincidentally, Salon today has published an excerpt from Great American Hypocrites that discusses precisely the media sicknesses and their captivity to the toxic strategies of the Right that were on full and vivid display last night.
My favorite (unintentionally revealing) media commentary about the debate is from The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz, who devoted paragraph after paragraph to describing the substance-free "issues" that consumed most of the debate -- Obama's "remarks about small-town values, questions about his patriotism and the incendiary sermons of his former pastor . . . gaffes, missteps and past statements" -- and, at the end of the article, they added:
The debate also touched on Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, taxes, the economy, guns and affirmative action.
It's just not possible to express the wretched state of our establishment press better than that sentence does.
Revealingly, not everyone is displeased with Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos' conduct of the debate. To the contrary, two constituencies which frequently work in harmony are quite impressed and very pleased with the whole spectacle -- right-wing noise machine members and establishment journalists.
National Review's Mark Hemingway excitedly declared that the winner was "McCain by a landslide." Commentary's John Podhoretz said: "Good Lord. Charlie Gibson Turns Into Larry Kudlow." Hemingway quoted one of his readers: "What's up with Charlie Gibson tonight? Especially on capital gains. He sounds downright conservative." Separately, Hemingway celebrated: "Halle-frickin'-lujah. Someone in the mainstream media finally mentions the William Ayers connection," praised Gibson for his questions about Jeremiah Wright, and the praised Gibson again for his questions to Obama about Bosnia sniper fire.
It all was so severe that even Jonah Goldberg admitted:
I'm no leftwing blogger, but I can only imagine how furious they must be with the debate so far. Nothing on any issues. Just a lot of box-checking on how the candidates will respond to various Republican talking points come the fall. Now I think a lot of those Republican talking points are valid and legitimate. But if I were a "fighting Dem" who thinks all of these topics are despicable distractions from the "real issues," I would find this debate to be nothing but Republican water-carrying.
(Apparently only "leftwing bloggers" think that presidential debates should focus on a discussion of issues.) Of course, Stephanopoulos was on at least two right-wing radio shows the day before the debate, assuring both Sean Hannity and right-wing host Steve Malzburg that he would take their advice about which inane, sideshow questions to ask Obama -- a promise he dutifully kept, to the delight of National Review readers.
Our meek and obsequious media stars think that the way they show that they are "balanced" is by pleasing the most radical right-wing polemicists in the country. Don't take my word for that. Commentary's far-right Jennifer Rubin gushed:
"These are the best questions, bar none, asked in a debate this election season. . . . If the ABC game plan was to utterly undermine the "liberal media is giving them a free ride" complaint they succeeded in spades. . . . . Conservatives will have to find something else to complain about.
The only ones more pleased than right-wing polemicists were establishment journalists. David Brooks said he "thought the questions were excellent" and gave ABC an "A" for the debate. Politico's Roger Simon agreed, criticizing Obama for daring to suggest that the debate was focused on matters that are petty, have no impact on the lives of Americans, and are ones that voters don't care about. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder echoed those sentiments, proclaiming Obama the clear loser and telling him: "if you're uncomfortable with it, then change the rules or don't run for office."
Notably, Charlie Gibson also hosted a GOP and a Democratic primary debate back in January and received rave reviews then, too . . . from the Right. The Far Right site NewsBusters heaped praised on Gibson back then for what they deemed his fairness and decency in questioning GOP candidates. So, too, did National Review's Mark Hemingway ("The Sober, Intellectual Tone of moderator Charlie Gibson and this whole ABC news production so far is very welcome"). The general consensus among Republicans in January was that Gibson did a superb job of moderating their debate, too.
Last night was a perfect microcosm of how our political process works. The Right creates stupid, petty personality-based attacks to ensure that our elections aren't decided on issues (where they have a decisive disadvantage). Media stars -- some due to sloth, some due to ideology, some due to an eagerness to please the Right and convince them how Good and Fair they are -- eat up the shallow trash they're fed and then spew it out relentlessly, ensuring that our political discourse is overwhelmed by it, our elections dictated by it. That happens over and over. It's how our media and our elections function. Last night was just an unusually transparent and particularly ugly expression of it.
UPDATE: The Washington Post's Tom Shales:
It was another step downward for network news -- in particular ABC News, which hosted the debate from Philadelphia and whose usually dependable anchors, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, turned in shoddy, despicable performances.
For the first 52 minutes of the two-hour, commercial-crammed show, Gibson and 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. . . .
Obama was right on the money when he complained about the campaign being bogged down in media-driven inanities and obsessiveness over any misstatement a candidate might make along the way, whether in a speech or while being eavesdropped upon by the opposition. The tactic has been to "take one statement and beat it to death," he said.
That is absolutely right, and will be a distinctly minority opinion among establishment journalists. Obama's pushback against media stupidity of this sort should be even stronger and more emphatic still. Let the David Brooks, Roger Simons and Marc Ambinders band together and self-righteously defend this trash. As always, it's vital to remember that they don't actually speak for anyone other than the discredited journalist class of which they're members.
UPDATE II: Time's Michael Grunwald echoes Shales' disgust with the behavior of Gibson and Stephanopoulos in an appropriately acerbic column:
Obama's memoir dripped with contempt for modern gotcha politics, for a campaign culture obsessed with substantively irrelevant but supposedly symbolic gaffes. Last night at the National Constitution Center, at a Democratic debate that was hyped by ABC as a discussion of serious constitutional issues, America got to see exactly what Obama was complaining about.
At a time of foreign wars, economic collapse and environmental peril, the cringe-worthy first half of the debate focused on such crucial matters as Senator Obama's comments about rural bitterness, his former pastor, an obscure sixties radical with whom he was allegedly "friendly," and the burning constitutional question of why he doesn't wear an American flag pin on his lapel -- with a single detour into Senator Hillary Clinton's yarn about sniper fire in Tuzla. Apparently, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos ran out of time before they could ask Obama why he's such a lousy bowler. . . .
[L]ast night suggests that there's little denying that our political culture has lost its ability to illuminate any issue more complicated than the appropriate condiments for a red blooded American to eat.
It's always worth noting that there are some extremely good establishment reporters around, engaged in real investigative journalism. But it gets buried, as the vast bulk of the political press mindlessly spews the petty, right-wing, personality-based idiot-script which Shales and Grunwald so accurately describe. That's the principal reason why "our political culture has lost its ability to illuminate any issue more complicated than the appropriate condiments for a red blooded American to eat."
UPDATE III: Tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m., roughly, I'll be on Democracy Now, with the superb Amy Goodman, to discuss the book, last night's debate, and various related matters. Live video and audio feed and local listings can be found here.
UPDATE IV: Digby ties last night's debate to several of the themes in Great American Hypocrites, in a typically insightful and thorough post.