Apr
17
2008

ABC's Debate Debacle

Trivia and biased questions dominate Democrats’ debate

The ABC-sponsored Democratic debate in Philadelphia on April 16 emphasized trivial matters of little concern to voters, while the actual policy questions were often based on misleading right-wing spin.

During the first half of the debate, ABC moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson avoided any mention of policy issues. As the Los Angeles Times noted (4/17/08), "With the moderators and Clinton raising assorted questions about Obama's past for the first half of the debate, issues received relatively short shrift. Not until 50 minutes in was a policy issue-- Iraq--asked about by the moderators."

The trivial line of questioning touched on well-worn campaign non-issues: Clinton's gaffe about Bosnia, Obama's recent characterizations about "bitter" small-town voters, the rhetoric of his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and the fact that Obama rarely wears an American flag pin on his lapel. (This is not the first time ABC has seemed unusually interested in this distraction--see FAIR Media Advisory, 10/10/07.)

Perhaps the most irrelevant line of questioning came when Stephanopoulos asked about Obama's contacts with University of Illinois at Chicago professor William Ayers, who was once a member of the radical Weather Underground group. Obama's "ties" to Ayers have been an obsession of Fox News host Sean Hannity, who reportedly pressed Stephanopoulos to ask about Ayers at the debate (Salon.com, 4/17/08; MSNBC 4/16/08).

Framing the question as a "follow up" on "the general theme of patriotism," Stephanopoulos challenged Obama to "explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem," given that Ayers had never apologized for the bombings the group carried out in the 1970s. "In fact," said Stephanopoulos, "on 9/11 he was quoted in the New York Times saying, 'I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough.'" (Actually, that quote appeared in the Times on September 11, 2001; it was not, as Stephanopoulos seemed to imply, made on the day of the attacks.)

But even when the questions turned to issues of actual substance, things hardly improved. It was not until a full three quarters of an hour into the debate that the candidates were asked the question about what Stephanopoulos

acknowledged was "the No. 1 issue on Americans' minds"--the

economy.

Stephanopoulos' first question to Clinton, though, was clearly pitched from the right:

"Can you make an absolute, read-my-lips pledge that there will be no tax increases of any kind for anyone earning under $200,000 a year? And if the economy is as weak a year from now as it is today, will you persist in your plans to roll back President Bush's tax cuts for wealthier Americans?"

The assumption would seem to be that there's something economically or politically dangerous about raising taxes, particularly on the wealthy. Charles Gibson picked up on that theme, pressing Obama about his plan to raise capital gains tax rates to levels of the early 1990s—a position that struck Gibson as bizarre, since lowering these taxes increases government revenue:

"In each instance, when the rate dropped, revenues from the tax increased. The government took in more money. And in the 1980s, when the tax was increased to 28 percent, the revenues went down. So why raise it at all, especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?"

This question rests on two false assumptions. The capital gains tax is paid by a small percentage of the population. As Citizens for Tax Justice pointed out (3/16/06), "The wealthiest 10 percent of taxpayers enjoyed 90 percent of the capital gains eligible for this special tax break." Gibson's reference to the 100 million Americans who own stock is irrelevant, since this tax is applied to the sales of stocks and real estate—not the act of having a retirement account.

Gibson's other point--"History shows that when you drop the capital gains tax, the revenues go up"--might be popular in certain conservative circles, but the evidence to support it is thin. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out (7/12/07), there is little causal relationship between the capital gains tax cuts and increased federal tax revenue. Economist Jason Furman of the Brookings Institution pointed out the the "Joint Committee on Taxation and Treasury both score raising capital gains taxes as raising revenues" (New Republic, 4/16/08).

In addition, both candidates were pressed by Stephanopoulos about whether they would "treat an Iranian attack on Israel as if it were an attack on the United States." Stephanopoulos opened this question with a flagrantly misleading statement, saying to Obama: "Iran continues to pursue a nuclear option. Those weapons, if they got them, would probably pose the greatest threat to Israel." According to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, Iran discontinued its alleged nuclear weapons program in 2003.

Pundits often justify their decision to exclude "second-tier" candidates from debates on the grounds that they distract attention away from the real issues. If presenting a distraction from the real issues is really the problem, perhaps moderators such as Stephanopoulos and Gibson should seriously think of excusing themselves from future debates.

ACTION:

Ask ABC why debate moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson so often derailed the debate away from issues of concern to voters and, in a debate that was supposed to help Democratic voters choose their party's candidate, framed so many questions from a right-wing perspective.

CONTACT:

ABC News

Email: netaudr@abc.com

212-456-7777