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A loss for words

AETN left out of debate planning.

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When does a debate stop being a debate and become a “candidate forum”? Answering that question may be the difference between whether or not this election season will see statewide-televised debates between the two major-party gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Mike Beebe and Republican Asa Hutchinson.

The candidates say that Arkansas public television station and long-time debate host AETN can sponsor and televise a series of three debates the Hutchinson and Beebe campaigns have worked out between them, to be held in September and October in venues around the state. AETN, meanwhile, said that under the rules the candidates have agreed to, their three appearances won’t really amount to debates, and has declined to televise them. As of press time, neither candidate had accepted or declined an invitation to debate during AETN’s televised gubernatorial debate scheduled for Oct. 22.

At issue are two documents signed Aug. 16 by Beebe campaign manager Chris Masingill and Hutchinson campaign manager Chris Battle. The first, entitled “Memo of Understanding Between Hutchinson and Beebe Campaigns Regarding Gubernatorial Debates,” lines out a series of three debates — Sept. 18 in Jonesboro, Oct. 4 in Fayetteville/Fort Smith, and Oct. 17 in Little Rock — and a number of rules for the proposed debates. These include a moderator agreed on by both campaigns, that all questions will be posed to both candidates, with each having the opportunity for rebuttal, a time limit of 60 minutes for any one debate, and a prohibition on props like pie charts and graphs at the podium. The second document, entitled “Memo of Understanding Between Hutchinson and Beebe Campaigns Regarding Joint Appearances by Gubernatorial Nominees,” sets forth a different and seemingly contradictory set of rules, including 10- to 15-minute opening statements by each, a time limit of 60 minutes for each event, dividing audience questions equally between the candidates, and no “rebuttal format” when questions are asked. Whether any of the “joint appearance” rules will apply during the agreed-upon debates is not specified.

Carole Adornetto is production manager for AETN. Last week, she informed the two campaigns that while the invitation for them to attend AETN’s debate series still stands, the station will not be providing statewide broadcasting of what she terms their “candidate forums.” “Election 2006: The Debates,” a series of seven debates featuring candidates for statewide office and sponsored by AETN, will be held Oct. 22 – 25 in the Donald E. Reynolds Performance Hall on the UCA campus

Adornetto said that in producing election-year debates, AETN carefully follows the guidelines issued by the commission on presidential debates. While those guidelines allow for some flexibility to allow AETN to meet the changing demands of the electorate and changing times, Adornetto said, the rules set by Beebe and Hutchinson for their planned debate series don’t meet that standard. “They haven’t yet described who their moderator will be. They have an opening statement that’s 10 to 15 minutes long. Our opening statements, it’s suggested they not be much more than a couple of minutes.”

Adornetto said that a debate is a chance to see candidates under “real world conditions” — which means debate time should be used for questions, answers and rebuttals. “In the particular forum outlined here they have deleted that important element,” she said. “There will be no rebuttal format. That’s not debate. If you can’t talk back and forth, on the points being made, then you’re really just giving a speech.”

Adornetto said that in 1998, Governor Mike Huckabee declined an invitation to attend the AETN-sponsored gubernatorial debate, citing scheduling conflicts. The debate was cancelled. Since then, Adornetto said, the network has adopted a new rule that allows the debate to go on if even one legal candidate shows up, with that candidate allowed to fill the statewide-broadcast hour by answering questions from the moderator and audience. Huckabee appeared with Democrat Jimmie Lou Fisher in 2002.

Chris Masingill with the Beebe campaign said that the agreements between the two camps were the result of a lot of time, energy, conversations and “back and forth” between the two. He said that the Beebe campaign would be happy to allow AETN to sponsor and televise the gubernatorial debates — if they can meet the framework that the two campaigns have agreed to.

“I don’t think anybody holds the book, necessarily, on putting together debates,” Masingill said. “We’ve had literally dozens of requests and different formats and styles, and it was important and smart for the campaigns to come together to agree on a pretty established and customary set of rules and formats.” Calls to Hutchinson campaign manager Chris Battle were not returned.

Dale Cox, news director for KFSM TV — a CBS affiliate with studios in Fort Smith and Fayetteville — said that the station hasn’t been approached about televising the planned Oct. 4 debate there. After looking over the proposed rules, Cox said that while it looks more like a forum than a debate, his station would be interested in broadcasting their appearance there, regardless of format.

“I’d love to do a real debate with them,” Cox said. “But if they’re going to be speaking in a forum environment where they’re going to be expressing their views, I think it’s good for the voters to hear it.”

Randy Dixon, news director with Little Rock’s KATV, said that the station will not be televising any of the three planned events. KLRT Fox 16 General Manager Chuck Spohn said the station currently has no plans to air the debates. KTHV Channel 11 news director Mark Raines said that his station is interested in broadcasting the Little Rock debate, though he said he didn’t know whether it would run on the main channel, the THV2 cable channel, or via a streaming web broadcast. Asked whether it bothered him that KTHV will have to play by the candidates’ pre-determined rules, Raines said that KTHV wasn’t far enough along in the process to have considered that. “That would be something that we’ll have to discuss after we’re able to clear some programming time over here,” Raines said.

Green Party candidate for governor Jim Lendall said that he would definitely be participating in the AETN-sponsored debates, whether the Republican and Democratic candidates show or not. Moreover, he said he has invited independent candidate Rod Bryan to carpool with him to the three forums planned by the candidates, and said that he will “hold my version of a debate outside, debating them in absentia.” If their forums do find a broadcaster in each of the three cities, Lendall said he would ask for equal time.

Because half the candidates are excluded, Lendall said, sponsors of the debate would be essentially providing an in-kind campaign contribution to the candidates. “I would expect the appropriate ethics forms to be filed by the candidates and the sponsors,” he said.

Beebe and Hutchinson’s refusal to debate on AETN’s terms is a slap in the face of both the voting public and the network, Lendall said. He sees a dastardly motive in their concocting their own rules, which exclude the other two candidates on the governor’s ballot. “It’s pretty obvious that the two major parties are trying to marginalize the opposition, to basically monopolize the election system.”

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