George Stephanopoulos was no apologies this week after one of the most banal and trivial debates in the history of them all. “The questions were tough and fair and appropriate and relevant. We wanted to focus on the issues that were not focused on during the last debates.”
Well, good for them. Because these are the kinds of things that I think about every week when I’m putting another $50 in my gas tank (what used to cost me $20 just a few years ago): How can I vote for a President who won’t wear a flag on his lapel? I’ve heard him prattle on about affordable health care, but I have to wonder if his reticence to endorse a single-payer plan has anything to do with his sympathy with the Weather Underground. I know he claims to be concerned about our kids dying in a stupid war in Iraq, but is it really just a smokescreen for the fact that his former Marine pastor doesn’t love America as much as he does?
This was stupidity writ large. Never mind the fact that most viewers have only a vague idea of who the Weather Underground was, they certainly don’t think of them when they’re at the checkout counter considering their increasingly enormous grocery bill. Stephanopoulos and Gibson focused on trivia that has nothing to do with our daily lives, except when the media makes an issue of it, and we talk about it in our daily lives. Make no mistake: I understand politics, and I understand when an ill-considered phrase can spark the ire of the electorate and give the candidate a little explaining to do, but a televised national debate isn’t the forum for that, and it certainly isn’t the catch-all forum for the minutiae that’s been debated ad nauseum in the media for weeks on end. The moderators’ performance attracted a not-insignificant 16,800 mostly-negative comments on ABC News’ Web site.
Stephanopoulos was incoherently unrepentant. “We have been researching this for awhile,” he said of the William Ayers/Weather Underground question. “Part of what we discovered is that Senator Obama has never been asked directly about it.” How now? That’s the defense for a “When did you stop beating your wife?” question, especially when George concedes that this is a question that Republican minds have been asking. Pick any tawdry point of inquiry. “We have been researching this for awhile, and part of what we discovered is that Senator Obama has never been asked directly whether he’s ever downloaded child pornography.”
That was the most despicable element of the evening’s debate. Stephanopoulos appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio program the night before. Hannity asked him about William Ayers and whether George would ask Obama that question at the next evening’s debate. “Well, I’m taking notes now, Sean.” Apparently he was. When Sean Hannity becomes the arbiter of journalistic conduct in America and the example to be emulated, we are in very deep trouble. In fact, maybe we already are, but I’ll get to that.
There’s nothing I can say about Wednesday’s debacle that Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News didn’t say spot-on perfectly on his blog this week: “By so badly botching arguably the most critical debate of such an important election, in a time of both war and economic misery, you disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself.”
He’s right, but just to play devil’s advocate, H.L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” By our affection for the banal we’ve sown the seeds of our own stupefying. We may not live it in our daily lives, but in our politics, far too many of us live for the dumb, for the flag pins, for the angry pastor, for the stupid slipup criticizing our values. We live for the personal affront and wait for the apology before we offer our vote in forgiveness. By our insatiable taste for the salacious and the trivial it’s very possible we invite this manifestation of democracy. FOX News didn’t rise out of a vacuum after all.
In a country where in the average election, roughly four out of ten people vote. and in the rare, best case scenario, six out of ten, how seriously do we really take our democracy? As retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor pointed out, “One third of Americans can’t name the three branches of government, but two thirds can name a judge on American Idol.”
As the bumper sticker says, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” We are living in a time of a pointless war, dire economic mismanagement, and crumbling infrastructure, but do a man-on-the-street and not even half will be able to tell you who their Congressperson is. There ain’t a lot of outrage out there, or at the very least, there isn’t enough. ABC, Stephanopoulos and Gibson are working in a world where the money of the morons pays the bills.
That said, though, the responsibility to change that begins with the people with the megaphone, and that’s the mainstream news media. It was heartening, at least, to see that this was the highest rated debate of this campaign season. It’s just disappointing that ABC thought they had to compete with The Moment of Truth.