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Debate sheriffs gave the inmates the keys

In order to keep the peace in your county jail, the local sheriff has to have rules. But what would happen if he or she turned over he rule drafting assignment to the lawyers representing the inmates?

Oh my. There would be congenial rights every day, an open bar after five p.m., unlimited time in the yard ands all of the electronic gizmos the crooks could handle.

And once the public discovered that the sheriff was duplicitous in all this, he or she would be voted out of office, pronto.

Which brings us to the recent series of so-called TV debates in the race for governor in which one of the two broadcast stations (the sheriffs) that got a debate turned over virtually the entire rule making process to the (inmate) lawyers for Bill Schuette and Gretchen Whitmer. Hence it should not shock anyone that the resulting product did not fully serve the viewing public but it sure as heck provided lots of political cover for the two candidates.

The assignment for the lawyers was to draft debate rules that minimized the chance of any mistakes by the candidates; to eliminate any exposure to any follow up questions from the reporters while at the same time giving the illusion to the unsuspecting public that these two heavy-weights were in the ring and duking it out in an honest to goodness exchange of ideas.

And once they hammered that out ,with only minimal input from one of the stations, they in effect said, “here ya go. let’s do this.” However one of the stations reports it was involved, suggested a format and the “campaigns signed off. We were very pleased” with the format reports one of the station executives.

The executive did not go into details about any give and take with the campaigns over what they demanded and what the station gave in on, if anything, to secure the debate. It is clear that one critical aspect of the debate rules was left out i.e. the ability of the moderator to cross exam the candidates.

Keep in mind here that landing a debate for governor is a huge win for the stations that make the cut. First they have something that other stations don’t and so their overall image goes up a couple of notches. The right to brag is coveted by all stations but in this instance only two stations were selected.

Secondly the stations get to showcase their anchor folks who conduct the debate which increases their curbside appeal with the viewers, which can help boost ratings and thus more revenue for the station, which at the end of the day often trumps the journalistic mission of trying to inform the voters to the best of your ability.

In other words there is no down side to securing one of these rare debates and it’s fair to say in the past the stations have been willing to water down the rules to make sure they don’t lose the program.

To be fair many of the rules were mundane house keeping type stuff..no noise makers in the audience, no props at the podium, no disruptive audience members and so on. But where the journalist rubber hits the road, the lawyers made sure the rubber never hit the road.

Under the rules, the candidates were given a minute for an answer, and then both got time for rebuttal, but there was nothing..nada…in the rules about giving reporters the opportunity to do follow up questions just in case the candidates did not answer the question the first time around.

Was that merely an oversight as none of the lawyers were journalists or maybe they didn’t know about the need for follow-up questions?

Don’t kid yourself. Lawyers know all about follow-up questions which are the stock and trade of their profession, too. Imagine a judge telling an attorney, sorry you can’t ask any clarifying questions of this witness.

The lawyers also know that if you allow reporters to dive into any issue, their clients might be at risk especially if they don’t want to answer the question in the first place, or if they don’t know the answer. How embarrassing that might be. Under the rules, the candidates were not exposed and the reporters were in effect neutered for the most part.

The most poignant example of this was when both candidates were asked if Nestle company should be charged more than $200 to siphon millions of gallons of water out of the up North water shed? Ms. Whitmer said yes. Mr. Schuette ducked the direct question the first time, but then the reporter did ask him again about the company paying more but because of the rules, Mr. Schuette simply ignored the follow up and answered his own question about the Flint water crisis instead.

Pretty neat hey?

Come to find out the lawyers did have a discussion about follow-up question during their closed to the public negotiations. They agreed to think about and address it in the next meeting. But in the next meeting, a source reports, it never came up again. And it’s not clear if the station that was happy with the format even bothered to ask for the follow-up provision.

So the solution here is for the broadcasters to take back the debate format process and write the rules with the viewers in mind and not the self-serving politicians. But to make that work, every single station in the state would have to stand fast on that demand and in effect tell the candidates, if you want to do debate, here are the rules. Take it or leave it.

Problem is so many stations want the debate for the self-serving reasons outlined above, that some would go rogue thus breaking the one-for-all strategy. The candidates would simply ignore the rest and go with the stations that would play ball with them.

Which means the “inmates” will continue to run the debates.

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