Friday, April 18, 2008

Blind Monks, a Donkey, and a Democratic Debate

Okay, so the story as it originated in South Asia had to do with blind monks and an elephant. Each one tried to describe the elephant from touching it only at one place—the tusk, the ear, the tail, etc.—and, not surprisingly, vigorously disagreed on what the elephant looked like. Somehow, though, the image of the “elephant” did not seem quite appropriate, so I have tried to imagine the scene with a donkey; it was, after all, a debate between Democratic candidates for president.

I was out for the evening and did not see the debate. Yes, I know, I could have watched a re-run of it here in the West, but for me that’s a bit like watching a re-run of a baseball game hours after it was been played, and the score of which I could easily find online. I checked my usual news sources to see how the debate was evaluated and I read the forty-five page
transcript of the debate. Still, I came to the debate with my own perspective, which had a lot to do with what I saw in it. I’ll be interested in knowing what you—like me, “blind monks”—saw in the debate.

Editor and Publisher, America’s oldest journal covering the newspaper industry, saw was that the debate was bad, not because of the performance of the debators but because of how the debate was managed.
In perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years, ABC News hosts Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous focused mainly on trivial issues as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off in Philadelphia.Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the health care and mortgage crises, the overall state of the economy and dozens of other pressing issues had to wait for their few moments in the sun as Obama was pressed to explain his recent "bitter" gaffe and relationship with Rev. Wright (seemingly a dead issue) and not wearing a flag pin while Clinton had to answer again for her Bosnia trip exaggerations.
Concurring with Editor and Publisher, Hunter on
Daily Kos suggested that the debate was “the collapse of the national press.”
After the first forty minutes of last night's Democratic debate, it was clear we were watching something historic. Not historic in a good way, mind you, but historic in the sense of being something so deeply embarrassing to the nation that it will be pointed to, in future books and documentary works, as a prime example of the collapse of the American media into utter and complete substanceless, into self-celebrated vapidity, and into a now-complete inability or unwillingness to cover the most important affairs of the nation to any but the most shallow of depths.

Congratulations are clearly in order. ABC had two hours of access to two of the three remaining candidates vying to lead the most powerful nation in the world, and spent the decided majority of that time mining what the press considers the true issues facing the republic. Bittergate; Rev. Wright; Bosnia; American flag lapel pins. That's what's important to the future of the country.
As I said, I didn’t watch the debate, but I did read
the transcript. This is what I saw.

One of the early questions was whether or not the winner of the nomination would pledge to take the other to run as Vice President. I was surprised to learn what the Constitution says:
Just to quote from the Constitution again, "In every case," Article Two, Section One, "after the choice of the president, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the vice president."
If it was good enough in colonial times, why not in these time?
Obama said that it was inappropriate to consider a vice-president before the presidential candidate was selected. Clinton said that while there were differences between her and Obama,
they pale in comparison to the differences between us and Senator McCain. So we will certainly do whatever is necessary to make sure that a Democrat is in the White House next January.
Gibson concluded that he had no takers for the pledge.

Stephanopoulos asked about whether the two candidates believed the other could win against McCain in the general election. After several paragraphs about why she was the best candidate, and then more prodding by the moderator, she conceded “Yes. Yes. Yes,” but quickly added again, “Now, I think I can do a better job.” When Obama was asked the question, he said, “Absolutely, and I've said so before. But I too think that I'm the better candidate.”

When Stephanopoulos asked Clinton about misrepresenting her statements about being under sniper fire in Bosnia, I thought it a fair question. I also thought that, under the circumstances, her response was as good as it could be.
On a couple of occasions in the last weeks I just said some things that weren't in keeping with what I knew to be the case and what I had written about in my book. And, you know, I'm embarrassed by it. I have apologized for it.
I thought Obama’s response when he was asked what he thought about the incident was generous and true.
I think what's important is to make sure that we don't get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history. We are going to be tackling some of the biggest issues that any president has dealt with in the last 40 years.
When Gibson asked Obama about not wearing an American flag lapel pin, and suggested some hypocrisy at his having worn one the day before. Obama responded:
And so what I've tried to do is to show my patriotism by how I treat veterans when I'm working in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee; by making sure that I'm speaking forcefully about how we need to bring this war in Iraq to a close, because I think it is not serving our national security well and it's not serving our military families and our troops well; talking about how we need to restore a sense of economic fairness to this country because that's what this country has always been about, is providing upward mobility and ladders to opportunity for all Americans. That's what I love about this country. And so I will continue to fight for those issues.
Obama didn’t forget about the comment about his wearing one the day before:
And let me just make one last point on this issue of the flag pin. As you noted, I wore one yesterday when a veteran handed it to me, who himself was disabled and works on behalf of disabled veterans. I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins.
What I didn’t like about ABC’s handling of Clinton’s Bosnia statements or about Obama not wearing a flag pin, which I in no way equate but which seem to have been “gotcha” questions by the moderators, was the video inserts of two citizens accusing the candidates. I was reminded that for ABC this debate was more about “entertainment” than “news”. That made me both sad and angry.

There were some important things said in the debate. I thought the two candidates’ pledges not raise taxes on those making less than $200,000 or $250,000 a year was important, although they may be impossible to keep after the deep debt the Bush administration is leaving the country in. Columnist David Brooks, another “blind monk,”
said they were being irresponsible. Of course, he also thought it irresponsible of Clinton and Obama to pledge to withdraw the troops from Iraq. I can't conceive of a Democratic candidacy without such a pledge.

It wasn’t just what was said in the debate that was important; it is what was not said or asked about. Nowhere in the transcript does the word “food” or “rice” appear, as in “
global shortage of rice” that has
spurred panicked hoarding in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and set off violent protests in countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Italy, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, the Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
The debate was conducted without acknowledging that we are in the midst of a world food crisis, causing incomprehensible suffering and death as well as political instability.

What was also not deemed of sufficient importance to include in the questions is the ordering back to Iraq of
disabled veterans. The only mention of “disabled veterans” in the debate was when Obama mentioned them in relation to the lapel flag flap.

What made me wonder most, though, was the moderators’ complete and total ignoring of the subject of “torture.” In the 16,405 words (45 pages) of the transcript of this two hour session, the word does not occur, even in passing, once. After ABC’s
breaking the news scarcely a week ago that torture techniques were discussed and approved at the highest level of the Bush administration, information which has produced a call for the appointment of an independent prosecutor and a call for Secretary of State Rice’s resignation, it seems inconceivable that the two Democratic candidates would not have been asked about the matter. Then, I began to wonder if attacking the two Democratic candidates in this debate and avoiding the torture issue by the moderators was someone in ABC management’s idea of “balance.” Or, was the issue simply not deemed of sufficient to importance to inquire about in a two hour debate?

From my position, albeit as a “blind monk,” I concur with the judgments that this debate was “the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years.” As for the candidate’s performances in such difficult circumstances, I have no quarrel with the judgment rendered by the
The Wall Street Journal poll with its 16,403 respondents. It was, of course, not a scientifically selected sample, but because the Journal is not known to be a friendly to Obama, I thought the results were noteworthy.
Obama 63%
Clinton 29%
No one 8%

Can you imagine 16,403 hands on one donkey? What did you “see”?

- Milo

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