A little bit of democracy has died in Wisconsin. Mind you, it didn’t go out with a bang the way big things are supposed to. It went out with a petulant whimper.
Facing a blast of criticism over its plan to allow only four of the 10 Democratic candidates for governor in a televised debate, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association picked up its microphones, had a public snit, and went home.
A live television debate with 10 candidates would likely be an unwieldy mess at times. As someone who has anchored political debates, trying to keep control of a large live television show is like playing catch with jello. You know at some point it will go badly.
And that, I argue, would be just fine. Wisconsin deserves a big, raucous, nerve jangling debate over who the next governor should be. (Does anyone remember the truckload of candidates the Republicans bussed in for their presidential debates?) Somewhere in our gang of 10 may be Wisconsin’s next leader. If it ain’t loud, they ain’t trying.
In 2002, the good folks at Wisconsin Public Television had a brilliant idea. We aired a 90-minute live debate with gubernatorial candidates Scott McCallum, Jim Doyle, the late Ed Thompson and Jim Green. As the anchor, my job was to say as little as possible. The format was so striking, C-SPAN carried the debate nationally.
I would set the table by introducing individual topics like the economy or education and let the candidates carry the debate. If there was “dead air,” my job was to say nothing.
They talked, argued and debated the issues among themselves. It was brilliant, sometimes awkward, live television where the candidates went at each other with virtually no media input other than topic selection. And the sun still came up the next morning. Silence, in this case, spoke volumes about a candidate's qualifications.
For the WBA to walk away from this debate shirks its responsibility both to the profession and to Wisconsin. Producing a live, televised, 10-person debate would be difficult. Doing something that’s difficult can also make for outstanding television.
My former industry is filled with some of the brightest and most creative minds in the world. To not use them is, at best, childish, and at worst, lazy. It’s lousy public service and even worse journalism.
The greatest political debate I was ever part of was in the Kyrgyz Republic, a former Communist country. As part of the “democracy team” from the American Embassy I was tasked with helping a group of local journalists from this newly emerging democracy stage the first debate between parliamentary candidates to be shown on live television.
Keep in mind, the Kyrgyz Republic then was a country where reporters could be killed if you offended someone in the government. Beatings were routine, newspapers were closed on a whim, and your station’s electrical power was cut off. And for the first time in their nation’s long history, on live television mind you, they could ask parliamentary candidates anything they wanted to. It was heady stuff.
The red lights came on in the studio and the anchors read their copy just like we had rehearsed. “You’re aware, candidates,” said one of the anchors, “that we now have a new national anthem.” Right on cue the candidates all nodded, assuring their fellow citizens they knew the new national anthem.
“Then you won’t mind,” said the other anchor, “singing a few bars for us?”
Some stammered. Some mangled a few phrases. Some just sat there. All of them looked pretty foolish.
We watched the birth of a democracy that night. It was live, it had some strange moments, but it worked. All because a group of journalists risked everything to help their communities.
It’s a pity we can’t say the same for the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association.
Jerry Huffman is an Emmy award-winning journalist. In the late '90s he worked for Internews, a media rights group in Central Asia. Huffman also produced and anchored debates in the United States, Europe, and across the former Soviet Union.
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