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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)

This was incredibly disgusting to watch. How could ABC News be associated with such a sliming of both candidates as this. Both George S. and Charles G. behaved in a way that is beneath contempt.

M. L.

Gee, the Obama supporters seem to finally feel what Clinton supporters have been feeling all along - the heat from the moderators. Boo-hoo.

If Obama can't stand what happened in last night's debate, he should drop out now. They handled him with kid gloves compared to what the GOP slime machine will do. If he and his supporters weren't such cry babies, I would say that this was good practice for Obama. But it sure seems like he can't stand the heat, so I suggest he get out now.

I'll start off by saying that I am generally pretty apolitical. Until this election, I have had very little interest in politics, and even though I may have watched a few presidential debates in the past, I have never "followed" the candidates, especially in the primaries. This election has definitely piqued my interest, because finally there are candidates to be interested in. That said, last night's debate was a huge disappointment for me. The questioning was terrible! Who cares about a lapel pin, or whose friends did what 40 years ago? I want to know how the candidates are going to fix the healthcare system, or help me get loans for college. The media needs to wake up and start fulfilling its obligation to keep the American public informed of the REAL issues. Leave the dirt for gossip rags and tabloids. If the media continues to bog down this election with the kind of garbage that was on display last night, young voters like myself will once again abandon the political process.

As a Canadian looking in on your election process, I have no particular allegiance to any candidate. But I'm shocked (and saddened) to see that so many people seem to feel it's unfair to ask any president about any unanswered question. If not now, then when?

Be it in your country or mine, democracy is a messy business. Staying away from sometimes messy questions is the absolute opposite of democracy. Shame on those who choose to betray that fact.

Travesty. Little tiny George and his taller sidekick could not have asked less substantial nor more pointlessquestions had they been in the employ of Billary. But then one of them once was, though in his last decent moment resigned when the President diddled while Hillary looked the other way, a habit of hers out of necessity.

The issue here as the Obama surrounds himself with, a racist pastor, a domestic terrorist, supporters of the PLO and Hamas. He is trying to run for president. We have a right to know why he keeps this company. I don't want an unapologetic domestic terrorist working in a high position of authority in our gov't if Obama is elected. He gets a free pass on everything he does. Does anyone out there really think him raising taxes on everyone from 50,000 a year on up is going to help the economy? He isn't even proud of our country. He wants to lead the country but is unwilling to display any symbols relating to our country? Hillary gets slammed everyday, as soon as Obama gets some, the media is out to get him. Give me a break, how about some fair reporting. Obama has not set forth any plan of action if elected. We all know he will raise everyone's taxes. His goal is to create a rich class and a poor class plain and simple. His views are borderline communistic: tax the people, gov't regulates everthing the people do, cutoff ties with our neighbors, associate ourselves with terrorist organizations. Ask someone what kind of gov't this is and I can guarantee you the answer would be communist.

Boo Hoo Hoo for Obama and supporters. Main reason so many are angry over the moderation of last night's debate is because Obama got pummeled and couldn't get up. The moderators didn't make this stuff up. America has the right to know who the heck this guy is. We already know who hillary and johnny are. Stop crying Obama supporters. Thats politics for ya.

There is news, opinion, and analysis, and there is propaganda. These two guys join Fox News in the propaganda department.

You Obama supporters are ridiculous. It was a fair question, plain and simple. And guess what, it's the first of many that are going to thrown at this complete poser. The fact that it hasn't happened yet is the real joke. Beyond all that, his answer did absolutely nothing to alay the concerns of millions of Americans about where this man's true core stands.

And he insults Americans one more time by claiming these are electability issues? If a lapel pin is an electibility issue, what about defending the Constitution? stimulating the economy? ending torture by our government?

I suppose we are too dumb to understand answers to these questions.

LOL!!! Shame on you Obambanites for being so childish! He sucked!! If he can't answer tough questions on the spot then he better rescind his application for the job!!

I can not believe how crazy all of you sound. WAAAHHHH, Charlie & Georeg you made it too hard for Barak! He didn't have enough time to write a speech and how dare you make him go first. He usually gets to repeat Hillary's answers as though they were his own!

Let's cut to the chase here:

1) Did George S try to appease Sean Hannity audience? Of course!! since ABC Radio Network owns the Hannity show. It does not take much brains to connect the dots that George was trying to help his buddy in the company for ratings

2) Could Goerge S. have personal reasons for his attacks? YES, Clinton was his old boss who got him the job in the Clinton administration in the first place. He either is paying back favors or he stands to go back in the administration is she wins. It is a win either way for him

Anyway you look at it, he had plenty of conflict of interest to be the moderator in just a pivotal debate and for what he has done already, should and must be fires if ABC is to maintain any journalistic integrity.

George and his partner Bully should resign, I think to both candidates they asked bully old questions, who cares anymore of her lie in Bosnia, who cares of wright,it actually helped Obama on polls, why not ask "what will you do with our $ that is being eaten alive by the Euro?" or so many important things

Georgi, you are FIRED you sucked you looked like high school BULLIES trying to get the black kid and dirty blonde to fight...


The first hour of the debate was an embarrassing waste of time. Instead of discussing issues, all we got were stupid "gotcha" questions. How sad.....

It's as simple as this: you can't have a former Clinton staffer moderating the debate.

Conflict of interest is inexcusable and if I may borrow from the Washington Post, "shoddy and despicable."

This is so rich, that Obama gets a little vetting and his camp is whining today. Obama's camp needs to realize that Americans DO want to know more about Obama's views on the personal issues. Keith Boykin was on MSNBC crying about the debate didn't get to the real issues. We have had 21 debates. We know where the candidates stand on political. We don't know where Obama stands on these shadowy comments and unpatriotic behaviors. Folks want to know about Rev Wright, typical white people, Clinging, Ayers,...seriously...we want to know more about Obama...so his camp should stop whining about it....Boo-hoo Boykin.

I tried to watch a Stephanopoulos political news program on Sunday morning a few weeks back. He is unbearable. On the surface I thought this man is not very intelligent and speaks with a bludgeon. However, I understand he has served in the Clinton White House (that doesn't mean he isn't just a bully and ignorant) and thus thought he might be a little brighter and insightful than most of the snearing, emotionally gestulating, and smear-style desk jockeys put on most TV today. But I was wrong. Stephanopoulos is a bigger idiot and fool than all the rest because he is informed but choses to be an idiot.

in that george s career prospects under a clinton presidency are radically different than they would be if obama were president, i think it's absolutely foxy of george not to make a disclaimer of impartiality before he began more mudslinging on behalf of the clintons, shame on you georgie boy

The Dems are in real trouble with these two candidates. McCain, running against any of these two (Obama or Clinton) is going to get a large number of independent voters voting for him as these two are just too far to the left for most American voters. The Dems are going to have to seriously think about drafting another candidate or the GOP is going to win.

It's as simple as this: you can't have a former Clinton staffer moderating the debate.

Conflict of interest is inexcusable and if I may borrow from the Washington Post, "shoddy and despicable."

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