Memo to TV stations: Airing candidate debates a civic duty

What a sorry state of affairs I discovered last week when I started reporting the TV aspect of the first Democratic gubernatorial debate.

I quickly came to understand that Baltimoreans would not be seeing the event, which will be staged Wednesday at the University of Maryland, College Park and produced by WRC-TV, the NBC-owned station in Washington.

But how could that be, especially with three candidates hardly known in the city: Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur?

The short answer: No one in Baltimore TV, including the statewide public broadcaster, Maryland Public Television, seemed interested in carrying it.

I know what tremendous pressure the affiliated and owned commercial stations are under to maximize profits. And I know how squeezed public broadcasters like MPT are for funds. And I am perfectly willing to stipulate that the audiences for these debates will probably be small — maybe even tiny.

But I also know local broadcasters can do better — much better. And I hope their audiences will demand that they do when it comes to election coverage in the coming weeks and months. I also hope Maryland viewer-voters will demand that candidates show up for debates rather than ducking them, as two of Brown's opponents and executives at WBFF, Baltimore's Fox affiliate, accused the lieutenant governor of doing last week.

WBAL, Baltimore's NBC affiliate, had been offered a live feed of Wednesday's debate by WRC, but declined. Dan Joerres, station president and general manager, told me that because it was planning to carry two debates in June — one with Democrats and one with Republicans — it was doing enough. In 2010, it carried only one debate.

MPT, which is producing the two June debates, said it thought it could adequately cover Wednesday's debate as "subject matter" within its 30-minute Friday-night discussion program "State Circle." Really.

The explanations from two of Maryland's leading broadcast outlets made me wonder what has happened to any basic sense of public service, civic responsibility or the belief that, at least a few times a year, broadcasters should think of their viewers as citizens first instead of only consumers or possible donors.

Have broadcasters conveniently forgotten the basic deal their industry made with Congress in the 1930s to set up the TV industry as we still know it today? It's this: You give us licenses to lease the public airwaves and make untold fortunes, and we'll broadcast in the "public interest" — occasionally, anyway.

I know "public interest" is the kind of term some people laugh at in these postmodern, social-media-snarky times. But that's one of the reasons our politics are in such gridlock and bitter disarray. Democracy only works when citizens take it seriously.

Eighteen hours after my post about the debate coverage ran and the three candidates had started feuding over how many TV debates would be held, MPT reversed its decision and said it would carry Wednesday's debate. Good for MPT. And good for viewers in Baltimore who can now watch it live there at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

But there is no reason yet to feel good about the current state of media and politics in Maryland.

As it now stands, there are only going to be two televised debates with all three Democratic candidates for governor before the June 24 primary: the one Wednesday, and one on June 2 produced by MPT. (The three candidates have also agreed to one radio debate on WOLB-AM with Larry Young, a former state senator. But no date has been set.)

According to Mizeur, Gansler and Casey Clark, assistant news director at WBFF, there was supposed to be a third TV debate. This was to be the Baltimore TV debate at WBFF in the last week of May.

But Brown's campaign shredded that scenario Wednesday with a news release saying that its interpretation of the agreement among the three candidates was that there would be three debates, not necessarily three TV debates.

"Early this morning the Brown campaign released a statement that was misrepresented as a joint agreement from our three campaigns," the Gansler and Mizeur campaigns said in a rare joint statement Wednesday.

"This does not reflect the intentions of the Gansler-Ivery or Mizeur-Coates campaigns, as the original agreement was for three televised debates. … Delegate Heather Mizeur and Attorney General Doug Gansler will participate as planned in a third televised debate with Fox 45 in Baltimore. We hope Lt. Governor Brown will join us as we believe that the voters deserve to see and hear the candidates in as many venues as possible."

But Brown's campaign told the station last week "Anthony Brown will not attend the debate at Fox 45 WBFF-TV," and that it does "not wish to be contacted further about this upcoming debate," according to a memo exchange between Clark and the Brown campaign that was shared with The Baltimore Sun.

Clark also told Brown's handlers in that memo that WBFF planned to have a chair on the stage for Brown during its prime-time debate, "and we will reference that he chose not to attend."

Here's a station willing to give up an hour of prime time to bring the three candidates to its studio for a Baltimore debate, and Brown says he isn't going to do it. He's going to do a debate on an AM radio station instead — a debate likely to be held on a weekday morning. (Young's show airs from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays.)

It is true that many front-runner candidates try to avoid TV debates where the setting and imagery of the stage symbolically puts challengers on an equal footing. But that's putting cosmetics ahead of democracy and letting spin doctors control the candidate.

Brown isn't someone whose record in office has given voters much of a chance to see what he can or cannot do. He's an unknown quantity to some extent, and it seems as if voters have a right to demand that he give them an opportunity to see him under some kind of fire — even if it is only a TV debate instead of a budget crisis or natural disaster.

It is also worth nothing that WBFF is seen by some as having a conservative orientation, because it is owned by the Hunt Valley broadcasting giant Sinclair. The station has definitely been among the most vocal critics of the administration in which Brown serves.

I can see how avoiding that forum might be considered good politics by Team Brown. But I also believe it's bad citizenship in terms of denying voters the kind of information they need to make an informed choice at the polls.

Between Annapolis politicians who want to do as few debates as possible and Baltimore broadcasters that don't want to carry the programs even when they're free, is it any wonder that politicians and the media are both held in such low regard?



On TV: See the debate at 7 p.m. Wednesday on MPT (Channel 22).