LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Critics excoriated ABC on Thursday for its televised Democratic presidential debate, slamming the network for “shoddy, despicable” moderators who they said favored Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama and dwelled on “gossip” instead of issues.
Critics ripped ABC journalists Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, a former Bill Clinton staffer, for wasting time during Wednesday’s debate on questions like why Obama wasn’t wearing an American flag pin or rehashing old disputes.
“It was another step downward for network news and in particular ABC News ... whose usually dependable anchors, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, turned in shoddy, despicable performances,” Washington Post critic Tom Shales wrote in a blistering review that got wide Internet play.
Shales said the debate, which took place in Philadelphia one week before the crucial Pennsylvania primary, “dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia” and said ABC’s coverage seemed slanted toward Clinton.
The Huffington Post, a news and politics Web site, lead its front page with the headline: “ABC’s Gotcha Debate: Ratings Up, Reputation Down.”
“The nation has witnessed, first hand, George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson for who they really are: pandering yellow journalists. Carnival barkers ...,” blogger Bob Cesca wrote at www.huffingtonpost.com.
Nearly 17,000 comments flooded ABC News’ Web site, many of them pouring scorn on the moderators, who were booed by the auditorium crowd near the end of the debate.
“Stephanopoulos and Gibson are the worst of hacks. Asinine nincompoopery. I‘m glad they were jeered at the end,” one poster, identified only as Splendoline, wrote.
At times during the debate Obama grimaced in clear discomfort as the spotlight shone on such issues as his fiery pastor, his relationship with a 1960s radical and his remarks about small-town voters.
Speaking to a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Illinois senator complained that it took 45 minutes of debate before substantive questions were asked.
“Now I don’t blame Washington for this because that’s just how Washington is,” he said. “They like stirring up controversy, and they like playing gotcha games.”
Jeffrey Schneider, ABC News vice president, told Reuters the strong reactions to the debate, which he said attracted 10.7 million viewers, could be chalked up in part to intense interest in the election.
“We feel the questions were tough but fair (and) reflective of events that occurred on campaign trail in the last several weeks,” he said. “We think that issues of electability and character are very important in this campaign. These issues consume the campaigns ... and drive most news cycles.”
Schneider also defended Stephanopoulos against accusations that he was biased in favor of Clinton because of his affiliation with the former president.
“George Stephanopoulos has proven himself to be a world class journalist interested in getting at truth and exploring important questions before the American people for the last 12 years at ABC news,” he said. “So, no I don’t buy that.”
Clinton, the polarizing New York senator and former first lady, faces an uphill fight trying to overtake Obama in the Democratic presidential race. She trails in delegates to the Denver nominating convention in August and needs a big win in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, as well as a strong closing effort in the last nine contests, to position herself to win the nomination.
While her campaign aides have frequently criticized the media for not subjecting Obama to as much scrutiny as Clinton has faced, they were clearly pleased with the debate grilling.
Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said in an e-mail: “Both candidates were asked tough questions. The difference was that Hillary gave straightforward answers to the ones she was asked while Sen. Obama dodged the ones he got. In the process, he ended up raising more questions about himself than he answered and is now trying to divert attention from his bad night.”
Howard Wolfson, another Clinton spokesman, said: “In an ideal world, I wish we could conduct our campaigns on questions of policy and policy differentiation. We’ve learned that campaigns are about much more than that.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Eric Walsh