George Stephanopoulos and Mark Halperin are soulmates. In 1992, according to Tom Rosenstiel's inside-ABC book Strange Bedfellows, it was ABC producer Halperin who helpfully handed Stephanopoulos a copy of Bill Clinton's old thanks-for-saving-me-from-the-draft letter. ABC then stayed quiet until the Clinton team could prepare a defense against a potentially very damaging story.
Now these two men are major powers in the ABC Political Unit, with Halperin in charge and Stephanopoulos as the top on-air political analyst. When Stephanopoulos appeared on C-SPAN to promote the first televised Democratic debate from South Carolina, he credited Halperin as ABC's inspiration for sponsoring the event. "We tried to make the best bid we possibly could, because we wanted to get this first debate."
Come again: Why suddenly was ABC so hot to negotiate around CNN and other news outlets to acquire the rights to the first Democratic debate? Why would they nudge about half of the ABC affiliates to carry the debate, if only after the late local news? Why build a whole hour of "This Week" around debate excerpts? Where was the market demand that called for all this network activity?
To put this in its proper perspective, let's ask: Would ABC have fought for the rights to televise and promote Republican debates?
A quick look at 1999 suggests an answer: no. ABC's record covering presidential debates illustrates the network's selective attitude. When liberal Democrats want the exposure, ABC is there. When conservative Republicans gather to promote their agenda, ABC is elsewhere.
The Republicans assembled three times in December of 1999. The first two debates, on Dec. 2 and 6, drew no ABC evening news summation, not even a snippet on the nights after the events. The third debate, on Dec. 12, finally earned a few video clips -- so reporter Dean Reynolds could attack candidate George Bush as "stiff, uninformed, programmed, or all three," while media darling McCain "appeared confident."
But when liberals gathered to push their agenda, ABC rolled out the red carpet. On Dec. 16, "Nightline" devoted itself to a New Hampshire town meeting with two favored candidates, liberal Republican McCain and liberal Democrat Bill Bradley, to promote their alliance behind the cause of harsher campaign finance regulations. The next night, ABC sponsored a special 90-minute "Nightline" debate for liberal Al Gore and Bradley. The questions from Koppel were softballs, even silly. What kind of First Ladies would their wives make? What "distinguishes" them to be a better president?