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Stephanopoulos defends his questions to Obama


Amid a storm of criticism that Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate focused too heavily on “gotcha” questions and not enough on substance, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos defended his decision to ask Illinois Sen. Barack Obama about his relationship with former political radical William Ayers. Stephanopoulos denied he’d been spoon-fed the question by Fox News host Sean Hannity.

“We have been researching this for a while,” Stephanopoulos said in a phone interview from New York. ABC News political correspondent Jake Tapper, he said, had blogged about the issue April 10, after it was first reported by Politico, the political news website. “Part of what we discovered is that Sen. Obama had never been asked directly about it, even though it’s being written about and talked about and Republicans are signaling that this is gonna be an issue in the general election.”

(A spokesman for Obama did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.)

On Tuesday, as a guest on Hannity’s radio program, Stephanopoulos said, “Well, I’m taking notes now, Sean” when Hannity suggested he raise the topic of Ayers with Obama.

In Wednesday’s prime-time debate, co-moderated with Charles Gibson, Stephanopoulos asked Obama: “…On this issue, general theme of patriotism, in your relationships. A gentleman named William Ayers. He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He's never apologized for that…. An early organizing meeting for your state Senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are ‘friendly.’ Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?”

Obama replied, “This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis. And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn't make much sense, George.”

Progressives pounced. “The real story of this debate,” said MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, may be “where one of the moderators found his questions.”

Stephanopoulos dismissed the idea that he was doing Hannity’s bidding.

“The questions we asked were tough and fair and appropriate and relevant and what you would expect to be asked in a presidential debate at this point,” he said. “The questions we asked…are being debated around the political world every day.”

By this morning, more than 14,000 viewer comments had been posted on the ABC News website, the overwhelming majority critical of the debate moderators, who spent most of the first hour on what Stephanopoulous called “electability questions.”

“The way we thought about it was, it made sense to hit the electability questions first, then move on,” he said. “I can see where reasonable people would differ with that.”

The debate, broadcast in prime time, was the 21st and probably final matchup between the two Democratic contenders, Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. It was, according to ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, the most watched debate of this campaign cycle, with 10.7 million viewers. The previous record, also held by ABC News, was 9.3 million viewers of the Jan. 5 debate between Democrats in New Hampshire.

As the critical Pennsylvania primary looms on Tuesday, both candidates have been dogged by controversies unrelated to the issues that voters say are topmost on their minds.

Clinton apologized for making up a story that she was under sniper fire on a tarmac while visiting Bosnia in 1996. Obama said he had “mangled up” what he meant to say after implying to supporters at a San Francisco fundraiser that some blue-collar voters are “bitter” and as a result “cling” to religion and guns.

Updated with more after the jump...    

Stephanopoulos asked Obama about his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose impassioned denunciations of the American government were widely disseminated on the Web last month.

“But do you believe he’s as patriotic as you are?” Stephanopoulos asked.

Obama replied, “This is somebody who's a former Marine. So, I believe that he loves this country. But I also believe that he’s somebody who, because of the experiences he’s had over the course of a lifetime, is also angry about the injustices he’s had.”

Stephanopoulos, who was a senior advisor to Bill Clinton in his first term, also pressed Clinton about her character, telling her that an ABC News poll found that “six in 10 voters that we talk to say they don’t believe you’re honest and trustworthy.”

Washington Post television critic Tom Shales accused Stephanopoulos and Gibson of turning in “shoddy, despicable performances.” They dwelled, he added, “entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that has already been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news.”

However, New York Times political columnist David Brooks blogged his approval. “I understand the complaints,” he wrote, “but I thought the questions were excellent. The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities. Almost every question tonight did that.”

An outtake from the end of the debate, which appeared instantly on the Huffington Post, showed Gibson being heckled by audience members as he introduced a final commercial break. “The crowd is turning on me,” he said with a thin smile.

Some who watched thought the anger stemmed from the caliber of the debate. But Schneider, the ABC News spokesman, was in the hall and said he believed some in the audience were angry that they had to sit through yet more commercials before being allowed to leave the venue.

“I have no doubt other people may wish to spin that,” he said. 

-- Robin Abcarian

Photo: ABC News moderators George Stephanopoulos, right, and Charles Gibson, left, are seen before the start of the Democratic Party debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Comments () | Archives (419)

Lol, after the way Campbell Brown sucked Obama's toes, and Tim Russert looked a vicious troll ready to leap over the table at Clinton, I think it's pretty rich that Obama supporters and the Obamedia are crying over this debate. This is far from the nastiest questioning in a debate, but this time some of it was aimed at Obama for a change. The problem wasn't the debate format or questions, it was Obama's performance. If he'd handled his responses really well, y'all would be rejoicing and showering him with praise. He didn't.

For the record, I still think the flag pin crap is nonsense. And I'll concede that MAYBE because I've seen so much bias against Clinton, a little bias against Obama isn't visible to me. Either way, she's faced the firing line in these debates numerous times, and the bias was obvious - it's a little late, and lame, to be crying fowl now, and the media uproar coming to his defense just makes that more obvious.

The tabloid television debate last night spells doom for the future of network tv. As to William Ayers, the fact that he and Obama each served on a non-profit community charity fighting poverty is reason to demonize Obama for Ayers' acts in the poticically charged sixties when Obama was kid? McCarthyism is running rampant in the "fighter"/killer Clinton clan or regressive politics and small mindedness. That kind of junk might gain you a few votes, but you'll never make it in the big leagues of world diplomacy if you don't respect people generally. Clinton's comic turn bad mouthing Republicans and asking them not to run anyone shows she spending too much time on Saturday Live and very little reflectiing on how her sophomoric satire plays with people looking for a little intellectual maturity.

George S. should not defend his questioning. Instead he should apologize to the millions of viewers who were disappointed with the debate moderation and view the whole thing as a lost opportunity to figure out how these two candidates will solve the huge problems this country faces.

With respect to William Ayers and J. Wright. The underlying implication is that Obama is a terrorist and hates this country. No one believes that to be true so lets move on. Two wars, economy on the brink, gas prices have never, ever been higher. We dont care about the guilt by association. We care about in specific detail how are we going to get out of Iraq. Does anyone have any plans to catch Osama Bin Laden. What, if anything can government do about gas prices. etc etc.

Also, everyone knows that George S. worked for Clinton. Shouldnt this conflict of interest disqualify him from being a moderator?

George. You failed I hope you get fired. Please..APOLOGIZE!!!

What happened to the time when presidential debates would focus on issues of national importance and a candidate's potential policy on global issues??? I am SO sick of any and everything EXCEPT the issues most concerning U.S. citizens taking center stage in this election year!!!

We are in the middle of not 1 but 2 wars, we are in what many feel is a full blown recession, gasoline is fast approaching a record $4.00 a gallon, people are losing their homes and livelihoods in record numbers and instead of homework and college applications, the youth of today would rather film themselves assaulting each other for You Tube! But the issues most concerning ABC in a debate of 2 candidates for whom one could very possibly be the next leader of the free world is why one of them does not wear a flag lapel pin!!! Give me a break!!!

ABC should be ashamed of themselves for such a "tabloid-esque" showing on national TV. For the first hour, I thought I was watching TMZ!!! For me, ABC now stands for "Any-Body Care"???!

Dallas, Texas

The "debate" was a total waste of time. The moderators questions were so tabloid journalism!

ABC has a history of doing this. In 2004, Charles Gibson made a big point of asking John Kerry whether or not he threw away his war medals, a line of questioning spoon fed to him by Fox News. It looks like the tradition is cointinuing, as ABC has joined the Clinton News Network and False News in trying to paint Obama as an angry black man not to be trusted.

I for one thought the debate was oustanding! For once BO was asked some good questions instead of asking if he needed a pillow. I remember the Hill supporters being told they where crying and whining when they complained about the attacks on her now BO's people are doing the whining because he sucked. He stuttered around all the questions he needs to answer but was so use to being papmered he was out of his league. He's not too good when he doesn't have it written down in front of him. Suck it up whiners! ABC, Charlie & George rocked!!!

He should be embarassed by what he did last night. The worst debates in modern history. At a time when our country has a war in Iraq, a slumping home market, an economy in crisis and debts passed on to our children, Stephanopolous and Gibson waste 2 hours on National Enquire-level journalism. An embarassment to the American debate system as a whole, and I hope ABC is not allowed to do any further debates. Please, the country deserves better than his sad excuse for moderating.

One would have to wonder about these people who claim the "love America" but clearly hate Americans. I decided to listen to Rush Limbaugh this afternoon who has devoted his whole show on Barack Obama. He has gone so far as to tell the Superdelegates that they need to get a new candidate since neither of these two is electable. Now why would rush want a "better" candidate from the Dems? Why wouldn't Rush just love this? I smell a rat. Rush spend 2 hours and 19 minutes trying to convince his listeners that Dems and Obama are "Radicals" that is the new buzz word.

I think they are all afraid of Obama becoming Preisident. Not because he isn't qualified, but because it would signal that the country is finally waking up and moving away from being told how to vote by the talking heads, MSM and Old Politicians. We are seeing the rise of "bitterness" and mean spiritness that the GOP harbors while waving the flag. The don't love this country, they love to control it's citizens with lies and inuendos!

Obama 08

"The questions we asked…are being debated around the political world every day.”

I live how he conflates cause and effect.
The whole 'bitter' controversy is a case in point. The thing swirled around for days and still hasn't been put to bed, but polling data makes clear that all the outrage is coming from overpaid pundits and not from voters.

If they were asking electability questions, then they sure didn't probe Clinton's electability. What about her public support for NAFTA according to her own records, when she claims she was secretly opposed to it. Isn't that a laugh? The GOP will make hay with that. The "secret flip-flop." That will really play into the GOP's hands. What is Hillary's real position on things. Oh, you will find out later, because she doesn't really tell you. Or what about the "Screw them?" comments. ABC's Jake Tapper had reported on that in October? That would have been a great followup question to grilling Obama on the bitter comments. No, George S. can't wiggle out of this one. He was one-sided in his questioning and it was apparent to millions. Shame on George.

ABC News yesterday reminded us why this wonderful Country was led into a senseless war based on lies. Journalism, if it is what Stephanopoulos and co is what they claim they practice, hit a new low. At a time like this, when the Country is at war, the economy is in tatters, and peoples’ insecurity at all time high, to turn a national debate between two candidates, one of whom has a 50% chance of being the next president of the Country, into a tabloid fodder is a travesty. Of all the concerns there are in the Country, especially among working people, to feature a woman asking a question about wearing a flag is trivializing the pain of people who really are looking for solutions to problems that are threatening their health and economic safety.
Shame on you ABC News.

Yuck, yuck, yuck. That he can defend his lack of professional journalism is just FRIGHTENING...No one ever respected him to begin with and this certainly isn't going to help his career any...Way to own up George!

The press has all the right in the world to question Obama in the BitterGate and now that Obama worked for terrorist William Ayers. He said he was 8 when Ayers bombed New York. Nice try. But he was 30something when he served on a board with Mr. Ayers in the 1990’s, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid, underlined PAID directorship position. They worked together, attended fundraisers together, Ayers held fundraisers and was a contributor to Obama’s Chicago’s campaign, plus they are neighbors and visited each other quite often. Enough said. This relationship deserves being vetted. As an adult Obama made the decision to work with a terrorist. This is a legitimate issue, the judgment and associations of the possible nominee. Its goes straight to the reason why democrats have lost the last two elections. It is fair to argue Obama’s condescension to the small town folk because it goes directly to issues like associations with Farrahkan, Wright, Ayers and Refko. This needs to be fully vetted.

This is just another example of the incidiuos manner in which the extreme conservative movement in this country pecks away at anyone who poses a real threat to their supposed power structure. A La Carl Rove tactics, McCain, the Clintons, Kerry now Obama have all been targeted. The Hannity's and their ilk are petrified of Obama's base of support. Not to worry, unfortunately this country is still not ready for a rainbow president,
regardless of his brilliance and innovation. No I'm not a member of any minority group.
What the heck are they all so afraid of anyway?

Wait - his defense on the Ayers question is that he saw it in that Internet? Did he ask about the other things floating around the Internet, like Peter Paul's lawsuit against Clinton for election fraud? At least it's less than 40 years old...

When will the media wake up and understand that this is not a "blast from Obama supporters?" Asking questions about flag lapel pins is just as disgraceful ask asking John McCain if he ever fathered a black baby, or Hillary Clinton what she was doing the White House while Bill was with Monica -- American's want their country back and we can't do it as long as the Media keeps acting this way.

Congratulations to ABC News! At long last, one of the mainstream media outlets has been willing to ask Senator Obama some tough questions instead of spray painting him with Teflon. I am so tired of hearing his empty mantra about "change, hope and unity." In fact, the very junior senator from Illinois has an ultra-liberal voting record that will be exposed by the Republicans during the fall campaign. If Democratic Partyactivists insist on his nomination, Senator McCain will seize the center of the political spectrum and, once again, the Democrats will let an election slip through their fingers.

I think ABC did a very good job. We need to have the character issue! I find it amusing that all the Obama supporters are crying foul when the Sen. Clinton has faced the firing squad more than I can mention! And YES she is still standing. Obama looked very weak.

Bottom line.

No one can be unfair to you unless you are ill-prepared.

Obama has not been and is not vetted. The moderators did not give the usual free pass.

Put it like this - if there was a bank robbery around the corner, and the police walked up to you and another person, held you at bay, and asked one at a time - "do you have the gun used in the robbery?" You either answer yes or no. If you answer no and you don't have it, you're clean. If you answer no and you do have it, then you have some explaining to do.

Obama has some explaining to do, but voters want to accept his answers and not check for the gun.

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