Should SCETV air congressional debates?

I hadn’t really focused on this until I got the release from the state Democratic Party complaining about it:

Dear Brad,
Earlier this week, SCETV announced they do not plan to televise any 2016 general election debates because they do not view the races to be “highly competitive.”  We are circulating a petition asking them to reconsider this misguided decision; clickhere to add your name.
It is regrettable that SCETV has apparently decided to focus on political punditry rather than informing the public about the choices facing voters this November.
What’s more, their political punditry is woefully off the mark.  A recent poll conducted by the Feldman Group found that 37% of South Carolina voters are more likely to vote for a Republican for Congress, while 34% are more likely to vote for a Democrat.  For the state legislature, 36% of South Carolina voters are more likely to vote for a Republican, compared to 33% for a Democrat.  Both of these results arewithin the poll’s margin of error of +/- 4%.  And while Republicans did their best to rig the districts through undemocratic gerrymandering, the poll found that in the 1st Congressional District, voters’ preferences are evenly split, and in the 5th Congressional District, voters favor a Democrat by a 5-point margin.  These results are the definition of ‘highly competitive.’
Moreover, SCETV is assessing the competitiveness of these races more than two months before Election Day, when few voters have tuned in to down-ballot races.  Denying voters the opportunity to directly compare candidates because SCETV thinks voters favor the better-known incumbents is putting the cart before the horse.  This sort of amateur political punditry is unbecoming of an institution like SCETV with such a stellar track record of enriching our democracy.  Sign the petition asking SCETV to draw upon their public interest roots and reverse this decision.
In addition, SCETV will be holding a public meeting on September 13 at 11:00 amat 1041 George Rogers Blvd. in Columbia.  Join us there as we ask SCETV to do what’s right for our democracy.  With the support of thousands of South Carolinians like you signing the petition, we can give South Carolina voters a chance to make more fully informed decisions in November.  The stakes are too high for anything less.
Jaime Harrison
SCDP Chair

I wasn’t entirely clear on what the specific issue was here, so I wrote to Jaime Harrison to get clarification. Was he talking about congressional debates here, or what? The way this read, ETV could be refusing to carry presidential debates, but I didn’t think that was what this was about. And there are no statewide elections for state offices this year…

And was he saying ETV should stage debates, or merely televise (“televise” is the word the release used) debates that others are staging?

He replied:

Hi Brad!  So traditionally ETV has staged/televised debates between candidates.  They recently had such a debate between Republican primary candidates Horne and Sanford.  They also held several debates in the 2014 cycle.
In this situation, Wilson and Bjorn have agreed to have a debate.  The Bjorn campaign approached SCETV as did the SCDP.  We were told that they had decided not to stage/televise any debates this cycle.  It is one thing if this was a budgetary decision, but the quote in the paper made it seem as if it was an editorial one based on competitiveness.

I think what he’s referring to there is this, from The State:

South Carolina’s public broadcasting network will not televise debates between S.C. candidates ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.

SCETV made the editorial decision Monday – not long after receiving a request to televise a planned 2nd District debate between U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale, and Columbia librarian Arik Bjorn.

“The main thing is our own resources and our staffing,” said Tom Posey, SCETV’s director of news and public affairs. He added the decision might have been different if the state had a series of “highly competitive” general election races….

I can see ETV’s point: The way our congressional districts are gerrymandered, we do pretty much have foregone conclusions in the general election. Joe Wilson has little to sweat about, to say the least. Pretending, even for the space of an hour’s debate, that this is an actual contest can have a certain Theater of the Absurd quality.

But on the other hand, should our public TV network just acquiesce in the way the Republican Party has taken control of our elections? Should the only debates it airs be between conservative incumbents and the primary challengers who keep pulling them farther and farther to the right? (OK, admittedly, the Horne-Sanford contest was an exception to that pattern, but that’s usually what Republican primaries are about.)

Should no other views get a hearing on ETV?

I appreciate ETV wanting to be careful with its resources. But saying “That’s just the way things are” to the ugly reality that gerrymandering gives us doesn’t seem right at all to me. It’s either naive — based in a lack of understanding of the way our lawmakers stack the deck — or it’s really cynical.

It’s one thing if the free marketplace of ideas has produced a race with a popular incumbent and a super-weak candidate who has no support. I could see not wasting money on that. I’ve spent a career using the brain God gave me to decide which races are worth spending finite resources on. (The political parties do the same thing, by the way.) But this isn’t a free-market thing. Elections this lopsided don’t just happen. You know how Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and other paranoids are always going on about how the system is rigged? Well, in this case, it actually is. And our media — especially our public media — ought to be confronting that fact, not shrugging at it.

The Dems’ interest in having ETV give their guy a boost is plain, but they do have a point on this one. Their guy is going to get creamed not because he’s such an awful candidate, but because the Republicans in our Legislature have done their best to put as many of the state’s black voters they can into Jim Clyburn’s one district, making all six other districts unnaturally white, which in SC translates to Republican.

What do y’all think?

17 thoughts on “Should SCETV air congressional debates?

  1. Lynn Teague

    If anything, it might be more important to give the public tv access to debates in races that are preordained by gerrymandering. Get a different point of view out there.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        You did see that neuroscientists have rather established that we don’t have “free will.” Brain scans show that we start doing something before we start thinking about doing it. We are the product of our genes and environment and will doesn’t seem to enter into it.

    1. clark surratt

      If S.C. was not gerrymandered to assure Mr. Clyburn’s seat, we would probaby have seven white Republicans. Especially if you draw districts around urban cores and some other demographically common centers that some of the experts like to talk about.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Really? I would have thought Columbia was blue–the Shandonistas plus the African American vote? Charleston, too.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Not in Charleston proper, I don’t think. I can’t cite numbers, but as I recall, Joe Riley had to get a lot of Republican votes to keep getting reelected.

          And Clark, Clyburn doesn’t need this level of gerrymandering to keep getting elected. As far back as the 90s, I remember him saying that he really didn’t need the Republicans to be so kind to him.

          As it s, they’ve made that district so EXTREMELY safe for a Democrat that Clyburn is free to serve as a Pelosi Democrat, which isn’t very reflective of SC. It would be better to have more natural boundaries. And maybe we’d have 7 Republicans, but I doubt it. I’m thinking some SC-style Democrats like John Spratt or Butler Derrick might have a chance.

          And even if they were all Republicans, they’d have to be more moderate Republicans, because some of them would have enough Democrats in their districts to have to worry about opposition in the fall, instead of just in the primary…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Exactly. I just imagine a lot of preaching to the choir, because nobody else much attends, like Evensong at an English cathedral…..beautiful, traditional, and maybe pointless?
        There are so many easy ways to find out what candidates stand for, without sitting through debates, imho. They favor the telegenic and the glib, which are not necessarily the attributes I’d put at the top of my list for an elected official, although charisma does help get things done.

        1. Juan Caruso

          “There are so many easy ways to find out what candidates stand for, without sitting through debates, imho.” -KF

          I have a very serious suspicion, KF, that your current downplaying of televised (ETV debates has more to do with obvious deficiencies and lack of debate proficienciey of your favored candidate (this time around) than your past and future stances have been and will be.

          You are being called out for your outrageous, convenient (as in e-mail server) logic!

        2. Lynn Teague

          Trinity has Evensong except during the summer. Although we get there too seldom, it is my favorite service, well maybe next to Compline.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Compline is magic. I’d probably go to Evensong in summer, but Sunday afternoons in fall and winter are too nice. I am talking English Cathedrals: on choir trips, usually the only people in the congregation are the folks who came with the choir…

        3. Scout

          I like to see the way the candidates think and talk on their feet, their facial expressions and mannerisms, their off the cuff speech patterns vs. the polished printed rhetoric of webpages and campaign flyers and soundbites, and their ability to actually listen to a question and willingness to answer it rather than morphing their answer into a preconceived talking point. Those things tell me a lot. I suppose a televised debate is not my only option for seeing them think on the their feet in person, but it is probably the most accessible to me, generally.

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