Despite all of the “fake news” allegations that are so trendy these days, journalists in my experience strive to not only be accurate but to stay on the sidelines.
The goal is summed up in an old journalism adage: Report the story; don’t become the story.
Well, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, despite good intentions, crossed the line this week when its foundation set criteria to determine which candidates will participate in a live gubernatorial debate that will be televised statewide July 27 in the Democratic primary.
Though 10 Democrats submitted the requisite nomination papers to be on the primary ballot, the WBA Foundation announced that it would invite no more than four candidates to its debate.
It said the goal was to provide for a good exchange of ideas “between the most significant candidates.” In a tightly contested campaign in which many voters are still learning about the candidates, that’s a risky, and in my opinion, inappropriate decision for broadcasters to make, no matter how fair they attempt to make the criteria.
Even worse than making the news, the WBA Foundation is putting itself in position to determine which candidates are viewed as legitimate — and thus who will get the chance to challenge Gov. Scott Walker and potentially become Wisconsin’s next chief executive.
That’s a decision best left up to voters in the Aug. 14 primary.
And I’m certainly not alone in questioning the WBA Foundation’s decision. Several candidates and interest groups have been critical of the criteria, which include inviting the top four candidates in the latest Marquette University Law School Poll who have also raised at least $250,000. Contenders who don’t meet those thresholds “will not be considered significant candidates,” the WBA indicated.
“Broadcasters that profit so greatly from selling political advertising say money and polls rather than ideas and vision for the future should determine whose message is worthy of being heard. Do they know a flagrant conflict of interest when they see one?” tweeted Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McCabe.
Former Democratic state Rep. Kelda Roys, who earned the top spot in a WisPolitics straw poll of people attending last weekend’s state Democratic Party convention, released an open letter Wednesday she wrote to the WBA Foundation in which she called the debate criteria “arbitrary, inaccurate and undemocratic.”
“Denying over half the candidates a voice in what will likely be one of the only televised debates deprives Wisconsinites of information that may help them cast their ballots on August 14,” Roys wrote. “It is the role and responsibility of Wisconsin voters to select our Democratic nominee for governor, not the WBA. Democracy works best when we all get involved.”
Roys rightly pointed out that Marquette’s last Democratic gubernatorial poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 7.1 percent, meaning that virtually of all the candidates were within the margin of error. With those rules in place, she indicated she could not in good conscience commit to attending the debate even if she makes the cut.
Likewise, Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, accused the WBA of trying to predetermine for the voters who their candidate for governor should be.
“This is an outrageous intrusion into the electoral process at a time when the Democratic Party has a historically competitive race under way,” Rothschild wrote in a blog on the government watchdog group’s website.
Rothschild called the fundraising requirement, including a provision that a tie would be broken in favor of the candidate who had raised the most money, “obscene.”
“Fundraising prowess should not be a prerequisite to getting in a debate,” he wrote. “This tips the scales in favor of wealthy and well-connected and promiscuous candidates — not candidates with the most experience or candidates with the best ideas or candidates who make the problem of big money in politics an issue.”
Even Marquette pollster Charles Franklin has said the WBA Foundation should not use his poll to determine debate participants because of the margin of error.
The good news is that the WBA appears to be feeling the heat. On Wednesday the group tweeted: “The WBA Foundation has heard the concerns raised about the primary debates planned for July and is considering its options. Expect a statement in the coming days.”
Let’s hope that statement says the WBA is reversing its decision and will allow all 10 candidates to appear in the debate. That may make for a full stage and some short answers, but no one ever said democracy can’t be messy at times.
It’s the right thing to do and would restore the process to its proper state, with candidates making the news and journalists presenting it to the public.
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