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A Pathetic Round of 'Gotcha' Questioning

Jerry Lanson

Let's cut to the chase: I've never seen a worse-moderated presidential debate, a more biased moderator performance, a less intelligent series of questions.

For 45 minutes, the first half of last night's Democratic presidential debate, ABC's Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos (Bill Clinton's old communications guy) double-teamed Barack Obama. Unrelentingly, they asked a succession of questions about this campaign's not so golden oldies: the beaten-to-death bitter comment, Obama's pastor, Obama's relationship with a neighbor who 40 years ago was a radical activist, even the Illinois senator's penchant for celebrating his patriotism in ways other than parading around in flag-lapel pins.

Someone might just as well have asked: "Senator, are you or were you ever a member of the Communist Party? A sympathizer, perhaps? Because the tenor of the questions at times seemed vaguely reminiscent of the '50s, the early '50s when Joseph McCarthy took his communist witch hunt from the State Department to Hollywood.

To his credit, Obama kept his cool. But he did so at a cost. He at times seemed muted, politely -- perhaps too politely -- understated as he said once, twice, and then three times that the American people were interested in how the next president was going to deal with health care and the housing crises, energy and the Iraq war, not the kind of gotcha issues the moderators kept bringing up. And then Gibson and Stephanopoulos fired back with the next gotcha question.

Sure, Hillary Clinton had to face her own gotcha moment: A Pennsylvanian taped earlier asked her why she said she'd been fired on by snipers in Bosnia when she actually was greeted with flowers. She rambled a bit, sort of went, "ah shucks," and then the moment ended. It was back to Obama.

My scorecard shows Obama got four gotcha questions, Clinton one. Even the camera pans of the audience repeatedly settled on Chelsea Clinton. Surely, someone from Obama's team was in the house?

Finally, when the script turned to actual policy in the second half, the two moderators sounded a lot more like employees of Fox News than of a neutral network. Would the candidates pledge to never raise taxes? Would they really withdraw troops from Iraq if their generals asked for more time? Would they bomb Iran to protect Israel?

John McCain couldn't have asked for a friendlier script.

Granted. Reporters get paid to ask tough questions. No complaint there. But they should be tough questions of substance, not rehashed spam. Surely, if ABC's producers had done some hard reporting, they could have found something fresh -- inconsistencies of policy statements over the campaign's long march, perhaps; contradictions between the candidate's current stands and past votes; or subtle differences between them on issues that really matter to the American public. Relooping an already weary newsreel, trotting out the tired and really terribly limited fudges and guilt-by-association embarrassments of this campaign, make for neither good debates nor good journalism.

For years now, I've grimaced when I see polls showing the persistent downward slope of public trust in the American news media. This Wednesday night, I could hardly blame that public.

Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He can be reached at

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