WBFF's skilled staging of TV debate

Gubernatorial candidates Attorney General Doug Gansler and State Delegate Heather Mizeur debate each other across an empty podium for Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown at WBFF Fox 45. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun / May 27, 2014)

In TV terms, there were two winners and one clear loser in Tuesday's night gubernatorial debate on WBFF-TV.

The winners: State Delegate Heather Mizeur and the TV station itself.

The loser: Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, who declined to participate in Baltimore's only TV debate and was represented by an empty podium between his two opponents, Mizeur and Attorney General Doug Gansler.

Fox 45 wins for its skilled use of TV imagery. The empty podium with Brown's name on the front was a perfect symbol for a candidate who looks as if he refuses to be held accountable to the people he wants to serve, of a candidate who will decide based on the terms of his political goals, not the citizens' need for information before going to the polls, how engaged he is going -- or not going -- to be with the voters.

Good for WBFF in not letting Brown dictate the limits of voter information in Baltimore. I know some stations that would have canceled in a heartbeat once the frontrunner decided not to participate.

I suspect Team Brown was hoping for that, but they were wrong in their campaign strategy. If I know anything about TV, Brown will pay for being missing in action on that TV stage Tuesday night.

And good for WBFF in giving an hour of prime time to the candidates when some stations in town didn't even want to carry the first debate at the cost of pre-empting their syndicated programming.

WBFF did a very nice job of staging the event with a live audience and a set dressed in bold, lively, visually engaging campaign colors.

Yes, I know moderator Jennifer Gilbert got the date of the election wrong in her opening remarks. But she instantly corrected it herself, and did a solid job the rest of the way.

And she didn't phony herself up with the S.E. Cupp, thick-rimmed glasses, fake Ivy-League-graduate-school look that so many anchors try to sell when they are doing politics. She was the same Jennifer Gilbert who delivers the news to Baltimore five nights a week, and it was just fine.

As a TV candidate, Mizeur did fine as well. In the first TV debate, I thought she lacked energy and passion. In fact, I actually thought she looked a little gloomy.

But Tuesday night, she was much higher energy. She seemed far more confident, animated and passionate about her message.

Best of all, Mizer's TV imagery matched her message perfectly. She has a great narrative that she eloquently articulated Tuesday night as being the daughter of an auto worker whose retirement was diminished when the company he worked for did not live up to its pension promises.

Gansler talked a lot Tuesday night about the "middle class being squeezed," but Mizeur suggested a personal history with that narrative that says to the many victims of social-class inequality, "I grew up as one of you -- this is not mere rhetoric for me."

And her appearance was in total sync with that message. No silk scarves, no eye-catching jewelry, no expensive suit or dress.

And she stopped ending her answers with campaign-commercial phrases, like, "That's why I believe I will be the best governor of Maryland." She only did that once Tuesday, and she seemed more conversational and sincere as a result.

As for Gansler, he was better this time, mainly because Brown wasn't there for him to fight with.

But Mizeur and WBFF were the ones who owned the hour of public-affairs television in Baltimore on Tuesday.