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Statehouse beat: Gubernatorial debate quite a debacle

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Let's call the West Virginia Broadcasters Association gubernatorial debate what it really was: 50 minutes of free airtime for two of the association's bigger advertisers this year.

On my way to the "debate," I ran into Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson, who literally was left on the outside looking in, and was obviously not happy about being excluded.

I suggested to him that if the Mountain Party wants to be allowed to participate in future debates, it will not be through court order, or by reaching a certain threshold for vote percentage, or through convincing the sponsors that it is recognized by law as a bona fide state political party -- but when Mountain Party candidates start buying notable amounts of commercial airtime on member stations.  

What happened Tuesday was less a news event, and more an opportunity for the WVBA to recognize key advertisers -- the two at the podiums, as well as those in attendance at the Clay Center's Walker Theater (having been treated to an association-hosted reception).

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The Associated Press was forthright in refusing to cover an event so blatantly designed to restrict coverage by non-broadcast media.

The handful of reporters who showed up at the Clay Center were shuffled off to a "green room," not the Walker Theater, where the debate was held. That's not unheard of -- the same scenario occurs when West Virginia Public Broadcasting has hosted debates, but that's because WVPB's Capitol Street studio is too small to accommodate onlookers.

That was not the case with the Clay Center, where the Walker Theater can seat 200, and while the Broadcasters Association could not find a half-dozen seats for the press, there were plenty of seats for their ad-buying VIP guests.

(Among them, I spotted such "Friends of Coal" as Bill Raney and Chris Hamilton, which may explain the pro-coal emphasis of some of moderator Charles Ryan's questions -- not that either Tomblin or Maloney needed any prompting in that direction.)

Not only that, but I was advised that there were at least 20 empty seats in the theater, far more than what would have been needed to accommodate the media.

The AP was correct to assert that it is difficult to fully cover a debate when denied access to the debate venue. There was no ability, for example, to gauge one candidate's facial expressions or posture when the other was speaking, except when the broadcast deemed to provide us with the occasional two-shot.

I was under the impression we would have a live video feed into the green room, so we would at least get to see the candidates' pre-debate interactions and comments.

Instead, all we got was the over-the-air broadcast from WSAZ, which we could have watched from the comfort of the press room, without hauling ourselves halfway across town... (Memo to WSAZ anchors: Next time, you might want to rehearse the debate intro ...)

I also thought it improper that debate organizers allowed Maloney operatives in the green room (presumably because they were live-blogging the debate -- the line between bloggers and the traditional media grows blurrier by the day), where they proceeded to offer running commentary on Tomblin's performance, via groans and chuckles.

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The debate was partially sponsored by AARP-West Virginia, and after getting no response from state offices, Mountain Party Chairwoman Charlotte Pritt e-mailed national AARP officers, calling on them to intervene on Johnson's behalf.

Pritt said it was inexcusable on AARP's part not to demand that all candidates be allowed to participate, since two key missions of AARP are voter education and preventing consumer fraud.

In protest, Pritt said she is going to cancel her membership and demand a refund of all AARP dues she has paid, with interest.

(A card-burning rally was probably out of the question, since AARP cards would melt, not burn, and knowing AARP, the replacement cards would be in the mail the next day.)

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As for the debate itself, if Bill Maloney needs an 8- to 10-point bounce in the polls, he didn't get it Tuesday. Most viewers I talked to thought Maloney came off as angry, snide and bullying, without much substance, while Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, though clearly on the defensive, showed a more thorough understanding of policy matters and issues facing the state.

(One reader noted that, when Maloney attacked on money wasted to buy high-end Internet routers, Tomblin should have pointed out that happened under Joe Manchin's watch, and then segued to say the real point is that all counties will have high-speed broadband access by early next year.)

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Finally, the quote of the week, from Ryan at the end of the debate: "I think we're all glad that's over with."

(Ryan's audio inadvertently aired after the screen had gone black, one of several technical glitches in the telecast.)

In trying to cover the debate, I hadn't given much thought to the quality of the telecast, until a reader called, saying he was surprised that it was so poor, given that it was a showcase event for state broadcasters.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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