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Ratings, criticism big for ABC debate

ABC News drew both record ratings and a heap of complaints about how Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos moderated the Democratic presidential debate, criticism that Stephanopoulos on Thursday called a sign of how much people care.
/ Source: The Associated Press

ABC News drew both record ratings and a heap of complaints about how Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos moderated the Democratic presidential debate, criticism that Stephanopoulos on Thursday called a sign of how much people care.

By midafternoon Thursday, more than 15,600 comments were posted on ABC News' Web site, the tone overwhelmingly negative. A prominent TV critic, Tom Shales of The Washington Post, said Gibson and Stephanopoulos "turned in shoddy, despicable performances."

There was some positive feedback, with columnist David Brooks of The New York Times giving ABC News' performance an "A."

The prime-time debate from Philadelphia on Wednesday was seen by 10.7 million people, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's the most of any debate this election cycle — topping the 9.3 million who watched the Democrats on ABC Jan. 5 — and proving that the lull in primaries before Tuesday's in Pennsylvania hasn't dulled interest in the contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

"The questions were tough and fair and appropriate and relevant," Stephanopoulos told The Associated Press. "We wanted to focus at first on the issues that were not focused on during the last debates."

The criticism comes with the territory, he said. "It's one more sign of how engaged people are over this election," he said.

Early in the debate, ABC's moderators asked for a pledge that the nomination fight's loser would be the vice presidential candidate (they wouldn't) and whether each candidate thought the other could beat Republican John McCain (they did).

Besides those questions, the first three issues raised concerned comments made by Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; comments that Obama made about the draw of guns and religion to some rural Americans; and Clinton's false claim that she had been under sniper fire in Bosnia while first lady.

Obama was asked about why he hasn't worn an American flag pin on his lapel, and his relationship with a former member of the Weather Underground.

All of these issues were raised before Iraq and the economy came up.

Will Bunch, a Philadelphia Daily News writer, posted an open letter to Gibson and Stephanopoulos on his blog. He wrote that he was so angry that "it's hard to even type accurately because my hands are shaking." He said the ABC newsmen spent too much time on trivial matters that didn't concern most voters.

"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," Bunch wrote.

Shales also criticized the early line of questioning, and said ABC's coverage appeared slanted against Obama. He mocked Gibson's closing thank you to the candidates for a fascinating debate.

"He's entitled to his opinion, but the most fascinating aspect was waiting to see how low he and Stephanopoulos would go, and then being appalled at the answer," Shales wrote.

Greg Mitchell of the trade publication Editor and Publisher said it was "perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate this year."

Stephanopoulos acknowledged that it was legitimate to wonder about the order of the questions, and whether some of the more issue-oriented subjects brought up during the debate's second half should have been sprinkled in earlier.

But he said it was appropriate to address questions like Wright, Bosnia and Obama's comments about rural Americans because they were issues in the campaign and hadn't been talked about in debates before. His question about a former Weather Underground official had received barely little notice in the campaign.

The Times' Brooks, posting comments less than an hour after the debate ended, predicted Democrats and particularly Obama supporters would jump all over ABC.

"I understand the complaints, but I thought the questions were excellent," he wrote. "The journalist's job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities. Almost every question tonight did that. The candidates each looked foolish at times, but that's their own fault."

Similarly, the Web site offered "kudos to ABC News for taking on both candidates fearlessly."

The comments on ABC News' Web site were angry, sometimes profane and occasionally funny. "Why not have Paris Hilton moderate next time?" one poster wrote. One man repeated the word "bad" 48 times. A sampling found opinion was running against the network about 8-to-1.