Where Was the Outrage?
Exactly nine blocks from my house in Center City Philadelphia, the following exchange took place on ABC-TV the evening of April 16 at the National Constitution Center:
MR. GIBSON: And Senator Obama, I want to do one more question, which goes to the basic issue of electability. And it is a question raised by a voter in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. A woman by the name of Nash McCabe. Take a look.
NASH MCCABE (Latrobe, Pa.): (From videotape.) Senator Obama, I have a question, and I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don’t.
MR. GIBSON: Just to add to that, I noticed you put one on yesterday. But—you’ve talked about this before, but it comes up again and again when we talk to voters. And as you may know, it is all over the Internet. And it’s something of a theme that Senators Clinton and McCain’s advisers agree could give you a major vulnerability if you’re the candidate in November. How do you convince Democrats that this would not be vulnerability?
I was appalled.
I was expecting outrage and an explosion from Sen. Obama.
Instead, he did a little tap dance.
Barack Obama’s Reply
SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, I revere the American flag, and I would not be running for president if I did not revere this country. This is—I would not be standing here if it wasn’t for this country.
And I’ve said this—again, there’s no other country in which my story is even possible; somebody who was born to a teenage mom, raised by a single mother and grandparents from small towns in Kansas, you know, who was able to get an education, blah, blah, blah ...
Among Barack Obama’s many attributes is that he is a gentleman.
I was not in the mood for a gentlemanly rejoinder. I cringed with embarrassment at the question and Obama’s failure to serve a high hard one back into ABC’s court.
The Exchange I was Hoping for
SEN. OBAMA: Excuse me, Mr. Gibson. Are you going to also ask Senator Clinton why she does not wear an American flag pin on her lapel? Or around her neck? Or in her hair?
MR. GIBSON: Uh ...
SEN. OBAMA: Because, Mr. Gibson, people are dying all over the world in wars and acts of violence. The price of food is skyrocketing and millions are starving in Haiti, in Africa and places in between.
MR. GIBSON: Senator Obama ...
SEN. OBAMA: Let me finish. Forty-seven million Americans have no health insurance. We are involved in two endless, unwinnable wars that are costing over $20 billion a month—wars that are bankrupting our military, our country, and our children and grandchildren. In the city of Philadelphia, where we are right now, more than one person every day is murdered. Every month, thousands of illegal immigrants are pouring unchecked into the country, bringing with them drugs and crime. The Middle East is turning into a vast cauldron of sectarian violence, and the United States is regarded as a pariah all over the world as the invader and occupier of a Muslim nation. The price of oil is $110 a barrel and rising. These are just some of the huge issues facing the next president of the United States, and you have reduced them to a quarter-inch-square piece of jewelry that you claim is missing from my lapel.
MR. GIBSON: Senator Obama ...
SEN. OBAMA: (Through clenched teeth.) Allow me to finish. (Looks around the amphitheater). David... David Plouffe, David Axelrod, where are you? One of you stand up, please.
MR. PLOUFFE (Obama campaign manager): It’s me, David Plouffe. I’m over here, Senator
SEN. OBAMA: David, I am going to finish this debate, because we agreed to it. But from here on, ABC is not welcome in our campaign. That goes for this primary and—if I am the nominee—for the general election. Do I make myself clear?
MR. PLOUFFE: But, Senator ...
SEN. OBAMA: ABC is to be denied access to all functions of our campaign. They do not fly with us. They do not ride the bus with us. You will deny them credentials to our press conferences and rallies. Any member of my campaign found talking to ABC—on or off the record—will be fired. If ABC wants to report on our campaign, they can pick up material from the AP and use pooled video coverage. I will not stand for the world’s suffering, death, national bankruptcy, the heroism of our valiant men and women in Iraq, and the democratic process to be trivialized any more by these people. Do you understand?
MR. PLOUFFE: Yes, Senator.
SEN. OBAMA: Questions about my relationship with Rev. Wright or my San Francisco speech are certainly fair game. But can you imagine telling George Washington or John Adams or Thomas Jefferson that he is not electable because he is not wearing an American flag pin? Or Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan? What a truly stupid question.
SEN. OBAMA: After tonight, as far as my campaign is concerned—and possibly my presidency—ABC will cease to exist. Next question.
The Actual Fallout
At first ABC was exultant at the Nielsen Media Research report that 10.7 million viewers tuned in to the debate. Then the egg hit the fan, as an ashamed media hurled abuse on the heads of Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos:
ABC News drew both record ratings and a heap of complaints about how Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos moderated the Democratic presidential debate, criticism that Stephanopoulos on Thursday called a sign of how much people care. By midafternoon Thursday, more than 15,600 comments were posted on ABC News’ Web site, the tone overwhelmingly negative.
—David Bauder, AP television writer
When Barack Obama met Hillary Clinton for another televised Democratic candidates’ debate last night, it was more than a step forward in the 2008 presidential election. 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.
—Tom Shales, The Washington Post
In perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years, ABC News hosts Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos focused mainly on trivial issues as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off in Philadelphia.
—Greg Mitchell, Editor & Publisher
Forget Clinton and Obama. The real loser of the Wednesday night debate in Philadelphia was journalism. The relentless rat-a-tat-tat of questions about campaign distractions by ABC moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos was a vivid illustration of what is so wrong with so much that passes for political coverage today.
—Rem Rieder, American Journalism Review
The political fallout from the Philadelphia face-off between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was all but eclipsed yesterday by a fierce debate about Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. The ABC moderators found themselves under fire for focusing on campaign gaffes and training most of their ammunition on Obama. Huffington Post blogger Jason Linkins called the debate “utterly asinine.” Washington Post television critic Tom Shales called the duo’s performance “despicable.” Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch said the moderators “disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself.”
—Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post
The Missed Blowback
The three most reviled groups in America are (not necessarily in this order): politicians, lawyers and the media.
The Obama campaign should have anticipated this question and been ready with some kind of strong response.
When the media are wrong and you’re right, you can’t go wrong bashing and humiliating the media.
By failing to jump all over Charles Gibson and ABC, Sen. Obama blew a great opportunity to show he’s a tough, decisive leader who will take no guff from the stupid media and—by extension—rogue dictators, international crazies and single-issue zealots trying to derail his vision of change. In a flash, the press would have become the villain—and the subject of endless discussion—rather than the two candidates eviscerating each other.
Instead of hurling a thunderbolt that would radically change the dynamics of this tedious campaign, Sen. Obama gave a lofty response to the McCabe-Gibson flag pin question, coming across as a slightly confused wuss. Clearly he is playing defensive politics—hanging on to his presumed lead by his fingernails while doing nothing to upset the electorate or rock the boat.
Left in play were his highly questionable relationships with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, Weather Underground bomber William Ayers and indicted fundraiser Antonin “Tony” Rezko, as well as his ill-considered diatribe in San Francisco on bitter Pennsylvanians who cling to their guns and religion.
Should he be the Democratic nominee, Sen. Obama is now fodder for a series of devastating swift-boat campaigns by the Republicans.
Denial of Access
What would happen if ABC were denied access to the Obama campaign and possibly his presidency?
A great family friend was Stan Swinton, World Service vice president of the Associated Press—a brilliant, hard-driving, hard-living charmer who spent much of his life on jet planes and knew just about everyone worth knowing in 104 countries. We met in 1954, when he was Rome bureau chief, and kept in touch until his untimely death in 1980.
At some point during the Vietnam War, I was sitting with Stan at the bar of the Overseas Press Club in New York and asked why reporters covering the White House frequently lobbed softball questions at the president and his spokesmen?
“Access,” he replied. “The government has the power to deny access. If you don’t have access, you do not get news.”
I thought about it and realized that no access means no presidential press conferences, no trips on Air Force One, no battlefield credentials, no Pentagon briefings. Sans credentials, a reporter—and his news organization—are nose-to-window-pane, on the outside looking in, forced to settle for pool coverage and sloppy seconds. Viewers will migrate to other news sources, as will advertisers.
Unlike NBC or Fox, ABC has no major cable outlets where news is discussed and debated nationally 24/7 ad nauseam. It is the weakest of the four sisters. If you’re going to deny access to a network, ABC is the network of choice.
My Personal Limbo
I mentioned in an earlier edition of this e-zine that I am a registered Independent and will not be voting in today’s Pennsylvania primary. Thank God. I still haven’t a clue who I would vote for or what to do in the general election.
- National Constitution Center