It has become a truth, all but universally acknowledged, that the final Democratic presidential debate, broadcast on the Disney-owned ABC network, was a journalistic disgrace and a political disaster. George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson alternated between the incomprehensibly trivial and the demonstrably false, giving the two-hour session the feel of a two-hour Republican infomercial, but with breaks for genuine corporate sponsors.
Stephanopoulos appeared to have allowed himself to be scripted by Sean Hannity, who earlier that day suggested the scurrilous line of inquiry that sought to tie Barack Obama to terrorist acts of the Weather Underground that took place when the candidate was 8 years old. It was hardly an improvement when, after almost an hour of smarmy and substanceless insinuation, the debate finally turned to real issues. Remarkably, the moderators -- each of whom enjoys compensation in the millions -- chose to berate both candidates for talking too tough to rich folk. "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?" Stephanopoulos demanded, this time sounding as if he was scripted by anti-tax evangelist Grover Norquist. Gibson, who had embarrassed himself at an earlier debate with the comically misinformed assertion that two University of New Hampshire faculty members could expect to enjoy an income of $200,000, also went to bat for Republican-style voodoo economics, insisting that the candidates pledge not to raise capital gains taxes. According to the most recent Census data, median income for an American family was $58,526. Just 5 percent of families enjoy annual incomes over $191,060. The average salary for a history professor, according to the American Historical Association, is $76,145. Remember, moreover, that this debate was occurring at a moment when, according to the Pew Research Center and the Gallup organization, "fewer Americans now than at any time in the past half century believe they're moving forward in life." It is, they say, the nation's "most downbeat short-term assessment of personal progress in nearly half a century of polling."
And no wonder. For working people, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation's gross domestic product since these data began to be collected more than sixty years ago. In 2005 the wealthiest 1 percent of the country earned 21.2 percent of all income, according to IRS data, while the bottom 50 percent of all Americans earned just 12.8 percent of all income, down from 13.4 percent a year earlier. That the two anchors felt it necessary to focus their questions for the candidates on lifting a tax that hits only the wealthiest 3 or 4 percent of Americans speaks volumes about the detachment of our plutocratic political class. It is perhaps no coincidence that the only support voiced for the wealthy anchors' line of questioning has come from such noted defenders of working-class interests as David Brooks, John Fund, Dorothy Rabinowitz and Lawrence Kudlow.
Of course, the shrinking state of working people's paychecks is not the only issue the networks and their cable affiliates have ignored during the debating season. As Media Matters' Jamison Foser has observed, "Through 17 debates this year, roughly 1,500 questions have been asked of the two parties' presidential candidates. But only a small handful of questions have touched on the candidates' views on executive power, the Constitution, torture, wiretapping, or other civil liberties concerns.... Only one question about wiretapping. Not a single question about FISA.... Not one question about renditions. The words 'habeas corpus' have not once been spoken by a debate moderator. Candidates have not been asked about telecom liability.... No moderator has asked a single question of a single candidate about whether the president should be able to order the indefinite detention of an American citizen, without charging the prisoner with any crime." (And remember, Disney/ABC used as its backdrop Philadelphia's National Constitution Center.)
What other topics might have proved illuminating in helping voters cast intelligent and informed votes for their next President? I'm sure we can all think of a few. Leaving aside the ones that are already dominating our headlines -- if not our debates -- any number of alarming problems in our society are going entirely unaddressed in this campaign and hence will likely remain so on Inauguration Day 2009. What, for instance, about the crisis in our criminal justice system? The United States jails roughly six times as many of its citizens as do most nations and nearly ten times that of comparable democracies. Do both candidates support the harsh sentencing guidelines and punitive drug laws that lie at the root of this disturbing trend?
And what of the fact that for first time since the flu epidemic of 1918, life expectancy is falling for many women in America, particularly in the Deep South, Appalachia, the Midwest, even parts of Maine? Simultaneously, the World Food Program explains that the worst food crisis since the end of World War II threatens the lives of 20 million of the world's poorest children. Food prices have risen 83 percent in three years, and the price of rice has more than doubled in just the past five weeks. Do the candidates wish to explain what they see as the root of these problems and the scope of responsibilities of the government in seeking to sustain human life here and abroad? Is, for instance, ethanol really the most efficacious use of corn, given its increasing scarcity where it is needed most?
Of course, the very idea of so sober and serious a televised debate in the current corporate media landscape puts one in mind of a feel-good fairy tale. And unfortunately, it's not the kind they specialize in at Disney.
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation, a senior fellow and "Altercation" weblogger for Media Matters for America, (formerly at MSNBC.com) in Washington, DC, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the "Think Again" column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute at The New School in New York, and a history consultant to HBO Films.
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