A Debate Without Media Is A Debate Without The Public

October 11th, 2012 by Matt Friedman

In this Season of Debates, it would seem obvious that, for the two campaigns whose candidates meet in a debate, as well as the organizations that bring them together, a bigger audience would be better. Wouldn’t you think that you’d want as many people as possible to see, hear and read about the debate? Apparently not in one state.

Earlier this week, the two candidates for Governor of West Virginia met in a debate that, remarkably, included limited media access. Held in a 200-seat auditorium, the debate was televised by organizers (the AARP and, ironically, the West Virginia Association of Broadcasters) did not create space for journalists to cover the debate in-person. That led the Associated Press, which feeds content to member news organizations across that and every other state, to choose not to cover the event.

It seems, in planning the event, the campaigns and the organizers forgot that the media is a conduit to their audience and influencing and exposing the audience to messages is the entire purpose for the event. Too many political PR types lose perspective on traditional media’s ability to tell their candidates’ stories and deliver their messages.

It’s easy to contrast this with the only debate between Michigan’s candidates for Governor in 2010. Organized by the non-partisan Center For Michigan, it was hosted at our client, Detroit Public Television. Our team handled media relations for the event. From the beginning of planning, media access was a top priority for all involved, including both campaigns. We even sought media input from our first meeting, to make sure the needs of journalists would be considered throughout all of the planning.

The actual debate was held inside a small TV studio, which created challenges that were easily overcome by consistent and abundant access. Any news organization could access the debate’s satellite video and Internet stream feeds and broadcast or webcast it, at no cost. Media of all types from across the state were accommodated and sat in the same room with the same access as debate sponsors. After the debate, they had Q&A access to both candidates.

There’s a reason why elected officials are considered to hold “public office.” The events that put them there should also be public, in every possible way.

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