This horrible "debate"

As mentioned earlier, family concerns (my father) have trumped other concerns for quite a while. Among various consequences, and in the cosmic sense a trivial one, is the list of items building up that I am looking for a chance to weigh in on -- should that chance coincide with my being near an internet connection.

Future items range from U.S. policy toward the Beijing Olympics, to Windows Vista and Mac and Google news, to frog-related and air taxi-related developments, to other themes. Concerning a potential US boycott of part or all of the Olympics, I'm looking for the chance to explain why Jimmy Carter, GW Bush, and WJ Clinton are right on this issue, and John McCain, Barack Obama, and HR Clinton are wrong. Off-hand I can't think of any other controversial issue in which you can place Bush and Carter on the same side.

And some day I will at least look at the couple thousand emails now backed up in the system. Sorry if one of them is yours.

I want to use this moment at the computer to address the unspeakable ABC bear-baiting debate last night. I haven't read what anyone has said about this -- except for Tom Shales of the Washington Post. He said that what Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos did last night was "shoddy and despicable." I completely agree and add only these grace notes:

--- From the often-harrumphing Gibson, this is no big surprise. But from Stephanopoulos??? Who earlier in his career was a message/press/legislative man for Dick Gephardt and of course played a more visible version of that role during Bill Clinton's rise - what the hell is this????

I like and respect Stephanopoulos, and part of what I respect about him is the way he usually conducts his TV interviews. But I also remember dealing with him back in the early Clinton days, he in his role as campaign guy and me in my role as reporter. He understands thoroughly and in his bones what is wrong with the kind of mindless, substance-free gotcha questioning he and Gibson wasted their time on last night. I know he understands it because I've heard him shame journalists who were applying the same tactics to Bill Clinton back in the day. What was he thinking? What kind of pressure had been applied to him?

--- After the jump, a passage from my 1996 Atlantic article "Why Americans Hate the Media," itself excerpted from my book Breaking the News, which bears on exactly this kind of mindless "what about the flag pin?" haranguing. To summarize what this passage says: Political reporters think they are being "tough" when they take a borderline-impolite (or worse) tone and try to trap people in some provable if ultimately-meaningless contradiction. But while members of the electorate often find these gaffes diverting in a pro-wrestling sense, whenever they have their own chance to ask "tough" questions they ask the candidates about things that will affect the voters' lives. These are generally questions of war, peace, economics, etc. Again, George S. lived through the phenomenon the excerpt below describes, though he was on the other side. That he would now be in gotcha mode is depressing, to put it mildly.

--- Whatever else happens the next time we choose a president, there has got to be a better way to see candidates operate under pressure than the grotesque system that has metastasized during this electoral cycle. It makes candidates into mere props for bullying anchormen-narcissists. It does no one except the anchormen any good. I mentioned earlier the oddity of Jimmy Carter and GW Bush finding common cause about China policy. Maybe the RNC and the DNC can join hands in freeing political debate from the destructive grip of the networks. And if they can't do that, maybe we should just go all the way and have the candidates compete eating pails full of maggots on Fear Factor. That's the logical extension of where we're headed.

Article except after the jump. Then, again off line for a while.

From Breaking the News (1996):

After the 1992 campaign the contrast between questions from citizens and those from reporters was widely discussed in journalism reviews and postmortems on campaign coverage. Reporters acknowledged that they should try harder to ask questions about things their readers and viewers seemed to care about—that is, questions about the differences that political choices would make in people's lives.

In January of last year there was a chance to see how well the lesson had sunk in. In the days just before and after Bill Clinton delivered his State of the Union address to the new Republican-controlled Congress, he answered questions in a wide variety of forums in order to explain his plans.

On January 31, a week after the speech, the President flew to Boston and took questions from a group of teenagers. Their questions concerned the effects of legislation or government programs on their communities or schools. These were the questions (paraphrased in some cases):

* "We need stronger laws to punish those people who are caught selling guns to our youth. Basically, what can you do about that?"

* "I notice that often it's the media that is responsible for the negative portrayal of young people in our society." What can political leaders do to persuade the media that there is good news about youth?

* Apprenticeship programs and other ways to provide job training have been valuable for students not going to college. Can the Administration promote more of these programs?

* Programs designed to keep teenagers away from drugs and gangs often emphasize sports and seem geared mainly to boys. How can such programs be made more attractive to teenage girls?

* What is it like at Oxford? (This was from a student who was completing a new alternative-school curriculum in the Boston public schools, and who had been accepted at Oxford.)

* "We need more police officers who are trained to deal with all the other different cultures in our cities." What can the government do about that?

* "In Boston, Northeastern University has created a model of scholarships and other supports to help inner-city kids get to and stay in college. . . . As President, can you urge colleges across the country to do what Northeastern has done?"

Earlier in the month the President's performance had been assessed by the three network-news anchors: Peter Jennings, of ABC; Dan Rather, of CBS; and Tom Brokaw, of NBC. There was no overlap whatsoever between the questions the students asked and those raised by the anchors. None of the questions from these news professionals concerned the impact of legislation or politics on people's lives. Nearly all concerned the struggle for individual advancement among candidates.

Peter Jennings, who met with Clinton as the Gingrich-Dole Congress was getting under way, asked whether Clinton had been eclipsed as a political leader by the Republicans. Dan Rather did interviews through January with prominent politicians—Senators Edward Kennedy, Phil Gramm, and Bob Dole—building up to a profile of Clinton two days after the State of the Union address. Every question he asked was about popularity or political tactics. He asked Phil Gramm to guess whether Newt Gingrich would enter the race (no) and whether Bill Clinton would be renominated by his party (yes). He asked Bob Dole what kind of mood the President seemed to be in, and whether Dole and Gingrich were, in effect, the new bosses of Washington. When Edward Kennedy began giving his views about the balanced-budget amendment, Rather steered him back on course: "Senator, you know I'd talk about these things the rest of the afternoon, but let's move quickly to politics. Do you expect Bill Clinton to be the Democratic nominee for re-election in 1996?"

The CBS Evening News profile of Clinton, which was narrated by Rather and was presented as part of the series Eye on America, contained no mention of Clinton's economic policy, his tax or budget plans, his failed attempt to pass a health-care proposal, his successful attempt to ratify NAFTA, his efforts to "reinvent government," or any substantive aspect of his proposals or plans in office. Its subject was exclusively Clinton's handling of his office—his "difficulty making decisions," his "waffling" at crucial moments. If Rather or his colleagues had any interest in the content of Clinton's speech as opposed to its political effect, neither the questions they asked nor the reports they aired revealed such a concern.

Tom Brokaw's questions were more substantive, but even he concentrated mainly on politics of the moment. How did the President feel about a poll showing that 61 percent of the public felt that he had no "strong convictions" and could be "easily swayed"? What did Bill Clinton think about Newt Gingrich? "Do you think he plays fair?" How did he like it that people kept shooting at the White House?

When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public's representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about. And they often do so—as at the typical White House news conference—with a discourtesy and rancor that represent the public's views much less than they reflect the modern journalist's belief that being independent boils down to acting hostile.