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 December 2 and 6, drew no ABC evening news summation, not even a snippet on the nights after the events. The third debate, on December 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 December 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?
But the most reliably conservative candidates on the GOP side weren't given the slightest bit of traction on ABC. Take "Good Morning America," which interviewed McCain an astonishing 12 times in six months in late 1999 and early 2000. By contrast, conservative Steve Forbes had one interview, on June 1, 1999. Conservative Alan Keyes was interviewed once, on Martin Luther King Day. The morning after Forbes came in a strong second in the Iowa caucuses with 31 percent of the vote, and Keyes surprised people in third with 14 percent, ABC awarded an interview to...liberal John McCain, who had skipped the caucuses entirely, having determined he'd be crushed.
ABC's still at it today. Now every polling-asterisk Democratic candidate, from Dennis Kucinich to Al Sharpton, is getting more publicity on ABC than Forbes or Keyes. Ironically, that's not to say that all this exposure will actually help the Democrats. Right now, they risk two damaging profiles: they can either look like Bush Lite (Joe Lieberman) or the second coming of George McGovern (Howard Dean).
None of that should matter to ABC. If the network cared, really cared, about informing the public on these candidates' positions, it might start with their voting records.
Consult the lifetime American Conservative Union ratings of the current members of Congress in the race. They all vote against conservatives at least 80 percent of the time: Lieberman (20), Sen. Bob Graham (18), Sen. John Edwards (15), Rep. Dick Gephardt (12), Sen. John Kerry (6) and the hapless Rep. Kucinich (a 13 lifetime ranking, with the only thing saving him from a zero being his pro-life votes, which he's now renounced). Then add a pinch of Sharpton.
This whole field is outside the mainstream, collectively on the fringe left. They uniformly hate cutting taxes. They uniformly support even partial-birth abortions. They uniformly pander to the Sierra Club environmental extreme. They uniformly adore "affirmative action."
Stephanopoulos said Democratic Party leaders wanted this early debate and early South Carolina primary to encourage the idea that "you could get a conservative" through the primaries. Nonsense. There are no conservatives in this field. Democrats worry that none of the candidates is well-known enough to beat President Bush. Instead, they should worry that their candidates will become too well-known.