By Robert Mann
The good news is that this governor’s election has featured more candidate forums than I can remember. From one end of the state to the other, the four major candidates have been debating — or, at least, discussing — the issues before audiences all year.
The bad news is that unless you happen to be an audience member (probably less than 1 percent of the state’s population has attended these forums), you must read an 800-word summary of the hour-long debate in your local newspaper. That’s not awful, but it’s no substitute for hearing the whole thing.
Most people, of course, aren’t interested in hearing the whole thing. If every one of these gubernatorial forums were open to the public — and free beer had been served — I doubt the attendance would have been that much higher.
The worse news, however, is that the precious few times the debates have been televised, one candidate has usually ditched the forum. You see, Sen. David Vitter will not generally attend forums or debates unless he can see all the questions ahead of time.
That’s right. A two-term United States senator, former U.S. House member and state legislator is so afraid of an errant question (or a question about his 2007 prostitution scandal) that he has participated in only one “unrehearsed” debate this year. And that debate, hosted by WDSU-TV in New Orleans, was a disaster and a disgraceful example of journalistic malpractice.
Now, the worst news: Vitter has agreed to participate in one more “unrehearsed” televised debate next Wednesday in Ruston, on the campus of Louisiana Tech. But, despite the fact that the debate will be held in the school’s Davison Athletics Complex — a facility that could easily accommodate a large audience — the university will close the debate to the public, including Tech students.
Times-Picayune | NOLA.com reporter Kevin Litten asked but could find no one to explain why a university would volunteer to host a televised debate and then exclude its students from the debate audience. As Litten reported,
It’s not clear why such rules were put in place at a public higher education institution where students and the educational community are often thought to benefit from watching the debate in person. At events previously held on Oct. 7 at Dunham School in Baton Rouge and Sept. 2 at Southeastern University in Hammond, audiences were both present, but U.S. Sen. David Vitter was the only candidate not to attend.
All four campaigns said they did not request barring a live audience or having media present in the room before, after or during the debate. Neither did KTBS [of Shreveport], whose news director Randy Bain said would have proceeded with the debate with or without an audience or the media present.
Asked whether Louisiana Tech officials negotiated with campaigns to prohibit an audience, Bain said, “I cannot answer that question because I was not part of that discussion.” Louisiana Tech officials did not return two messages left seeking comment on Thursday and Friday, respectively.
“When we went out there they let us know they weren’t going to have an audience and we were fine with that,” Bain said. Asked about why the media isn’t allowed in the debate area, Bain said, “once again, that was Louisiana Tech. They wanted a controlled atmosphere in that studio area.”
I don’t know why Louisiana Tech wouldn’t want its student to watch this debate in person. In fact, I am certain that university officials very much want their students in the audience. Draw your own conclusions about why a public university might exclude students, but would it surprise anyone if we learned that someone from Vitter’s campaign made the senior senator’s wishes clear? And what university would defy a sitting U.S. senator who may well be the sitting governor in three months?
Much of this confusion could be resolved if the Legislature would take a cue from the federal Commission on Presidential Debates. According to the commission’s website
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners. Its primary purpose is to sponsor and produce debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates. The organization, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) corporation, sponsored all the presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996,2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012.
Let the local and regional organizations continue holding their candidate forums. And let the TV stations and universities host any forum which one or all the candidates will attend. But let’s establish a state commission that will set the number, dates and location of the official statewide televised debates. Let them hold three or four professionally produced and hosted debates. Perhaps Louisiana Public Broadcasting could take the lead in making them available to any television station in the state that would air them.
The candidates would not be required to attend, but the commission should be non-partisan and authoritative. Its membership would be balanced by party, gender and race — and above reproach. Open all it’s meetings and deliberations to the public. Let the public, the press and the candidates observe and comment on how the debates are organized and produced.
In other words, make the commission’s proceedings and its debates so fair, credible and significant that no serious candidate would dare stage a cowardly, Vitter-like boycott.
But, as this election has proven several times already, the status quo is not serving the public. We need something better.