Debate Over Debates Puts Media Outlets in a Bind

The squabbling and sense of uncertainty surrounding gubernatorial debates intensified on Friday, as Democrat Benjamin T. Jealous announced that he has accepted invitations from five Maryland media outlets. Earlier this week, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced he plans to participate in two televised debates. The contradictory public statements put the news organizations seeking to land a high-profile gubernatorial debate in a bind, and they underscore the benefits of having campaigns engage one another in negotiations before going public, something both sides acknowledge did not occur. “We are pleased to announce our intention to participate in debates that will truly give voters an opportunity to learn about both candidates’ platforms and represent the diversity of our state,” said Jealous’ campaign manager, Travis Tazelaar. “Larry Hogan was right to advocate for more debates in 2014, and it’s unacceptable to offer voters fewer opportunities this year given the issues that need to be discussed.” Chuck Todd, host of NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” has been recommended to host a debate between Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and his Democrtic opponent, former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous./NBC photo  On Wednesday, the Hogan campaign announced that the incumbent “will participate in two televised debates” — one hosted by Maryland Public Television and WBAL (Channel 11) on Sept. 17, the other hosted by WJLA (ABC-7), a Washington-area station, and The Washington Post on Sept. 24. “Governor Hogan is excited and honored for these opportunities to discuss the incredible progress Maryland has made over the past four years and his vision for an even better and more affordable future in front of a statewide audience,” communications director Scott Sloofman said at the time. The Jealous camp envisions a handful of face-to-face encounters, four occurring on television and one on radio. According to a campaign statement, he has agreed to participate in debates hosted by NBC4/Telemundo, Maryland Public Television/WBAL (in conjunction with The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore), WJLA/The Washington Post, The Real News Network, and one on Baltimore radio station WYPR-FM.  In addition to pushing for more debates, the Jealous team wants the encounters held in October, not September, to position them closer to Election Day. Early Voting runs from Oct. 25 to Nov. 1.  Election Day is Nov. 6.   In 2014, Hogan and then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) debated on television three times, on Oct. 7, Oct. 14 and Oct. 18. The Democrats want at least one debate to air on a Spanish-language station.   NBC4 and its sister station, Telemundo, offered several dates in October, Maryland Matters has learned, including the 16th, 17th and 18th. In a series of letters, the station proposed a live 7-8 p.m. debate moderated by Chuck Todd, host of “Meet the Press.” Hogan’s refusal to accept that offer drew harsh condemnation from Gustavo Torres, president of CASA In Action, the political arm of the immigrants’ rights group. “He doesn’t want to address the issues related to the Latino and immigrant community,” he said. “He knows that his record is very poor and that he hasn’t had any leadership on immigration issues.” The Hogan camp declined to respond to Torres’ criticism, but they did defend their decision to accept two debate offers.  “We got two invitations, from major organizations in the state, reputable” organizations, said Douglass V. Mayer, Hogan’s deputy campaign manager. “We agreed to the major invites that we got. “These are the debates that we’re doing. … At the end of the day, Mr. Jealous is going to show or he isn’t going to show.” In the wake of the Jealous news release, a representative from MPT expressed optimism that an agreement can be reached, and he expressed flexibility on the timing.   “Based on what was on our [studio] schedule, this was ‘a date’ that worked after Labor Day,” said Thomas J. Williams, the station’s managing director for communications. “I can’t tell you for certain that date’s going to work, but if another date works for everybody, that’s where we’ll slot it in.” An official from Sinclair Broadcast Group, WJLA’s parent company, did not respond to requests for comment. (Editor’s Note: Reporter Bruce DePuyt worked at NewsChannel 8, WJLA’s sister station, from 1993 to 2017.) [email protected]

Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent more than two decades on local television, including 14 years as host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the D.C. metro region. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County, as well as a reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. Bruce also is the host of the weekly The Bruce DePuyt Podcast.

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