The ABC Debates and the Death Throes of Old Media and Old Politics

As a former journalist, schooled in the great traditions of journalism of the 20th century, I have to add my voice to the chorus and say that I was deeply disappointed in the performance of the profession in the debate last night. Deeply disappointed, if not angry, and yes, maybe a bit bitter.

At a moment when America needs our journalists and commentators on politics to help the country move beyond the petty, bickering, red-herring politics of the past 25 years, the moderators of the debate went back for one long immersion. George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson spent the entire debate at this momentous time in American history trying to parse out the clauses of off-hand remarks, point out the support of people with seven degrees of separation from Obama, and trap the candidates in these gotcha moments that would put a ripple in another 24 hours news cycle. It was deeply disappointing.

I must say, in my opinion, Clinton did not do much to resist the flow back to those past norms. She cut her teeth in that kind of political environment, learned to play well at that game, won a lot, and lost some. She seemed perfectly at home going back to the gotcha, parsing, split-hair politics that defined the Bush Clinton Bush years.

Obama truly did try to do something different, tried to break into a new kind of politics, a new kind of framework, a new kind of discussion. He needed to show he could battle head-to-head, and not appear wimpish, but he genuinely tried to shift the conversation to a higher plain. He did ok in that – certainly better than anyone else on that stage.

It’s so disappointing because our country is at a moment in history in which we face a series of deep structural changes to the American economy and society, to the whole world order, and we are up against a series of 21st century challenges that are unprecedented and extremely complex. If anything we need to call upon the best in the American people, the best in American political leaders, and the best in American journalists, to rise to the occasion, face up to the challenges, and help figure this out for the country and the world.

At a moment when we need that, the last thing we need is to get completely mired in this old politics, in which we’re worried about who wears a lapel pin, or whose supporter was a radical Weatherman 40 years ago. At a moment when our country needs to fundamentally rethink how we run the economy, how we distribute wealth, reinvest in our infrastructure, shift to new energy sources, rebuild our schools, provide healthcare in a 21st century setting of biotech and genetics, Stephanopoulos is trying his best to get the candidates to say: read-my-lips-no-new-taxes. He’s trying to fiscally hamstring the country for the next four years, or catch the Dems in a way that will allow McCain, a throwback not just to Bush but to Reagan, to hammer them about raising taxes this fall. (Folks, how many more times can we retread tax cuts as the center of our economic policy? The deficit is in the trillions, our infrastructure is collapsing, etc, etc. Why are we still back in that old Reagan frame?)

It’s difficult to watch and not get angry, and maybe even bitter.

One thing that makes me hopeful that is a basic confidence in the American people, the bedrock of our democracy. It looks like people are not buying this. In the bigger context of the race, Obama, who is bucking this old framework and forging a new one, maintains a lead and momentum. In the smaller context of the upcoming primaries, these distractions do not seem to be pushing the poll numbers around much.

You have to hope that there is a core wisdom in this complex mix of classes and ethnic groups and races that makes up this amazingly diverse democracy. You have to hope that a collective wisdom will come out of this process that moves away from the old politics, built on that old media and old journalism, and moves towards a new politics, which is increasingly built on new media.

It’s worth remembering the YouTube debates. They were not perfect by any means, but they were far better than the debate driven by the best of ABC News. At least CNN and YouTube blended together and tried to pose questions from average people with real concerns, balanced by journalistic analysis. The candidates were able to mostly talk about real issues and not this gotcha stuff.

It’s good that politics now has a more open new media environment to turn to when the one-way broadcast media proves wanting. Now people can see Obama expound upon a gotcha race moment at great length via a 45 minute video of his speech. They can just go to the web and instantaneously see it. The environment of new media is allowing for a new politics, a new conversation, a higher plane of discussion that is woefully missing from the politics of the last 25 years.

Some people lament the collapse of broadcast TV ratings, the freefall of newspaper circulation and ad revenue, and there is a place in my heart that laments the undermining of the great journalistic tradition of Edward Murrow and the Watergate reporters. But when I see performances like those of Stephanopoulos and Gibson, it makes me think: bring it on.

Peter Leyden