Memo to TV stations: Airing candidate debates a civic duty

Reluctance to pick up, participate in forums speaks poorly about the state of media and politics in Maryland

  • Gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown rallies his supporters as he opens his Montgomery County campaign headquarter.
Gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown rallies his… (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore…)
May 02, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

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.”

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