Last night, while most of the country was tuned into the very beginning of what may be remembered as the greatest baseball game in American history, many in Louisiana were watching what should be remembered as the worst televised political debate in state history.
As a result of corporate incompetence, poor planning, and terrible moderating, debate sponsors allowed the country’s most notorious white nationalist and outspoken racist to appear on stage at an historically African-American university and dominate what should have been a substantive discussion of the issues with erratic, angry, and delusional hate speech. Students who protested outside the debate were met- seemingly arbitrarily- with pepper-spray from campus police; at least two were reportedly detained, and with the exception of less than three dozen campaign staffers and university employees, no one was allowed in. On television, the debate hall appeared to be entirely empty.
There are twenty-four people running for U.S. Senate in Louisiana, including a grown man who goes by the name “Crawdaddy” Crawford, a young stand-up comedian named Kaitlin Marone who “knows (she) won’t win” and whose platform is both purposely absurdist and subversively brilliant (free art school for everyone!), and the estranged cousin of former Sen. Mary Landrieu whose only real advantage is that his name, Gary, rhymes with her name.
And there are a few others that most Louisianans haven’t heard of: Charles Marsala, the former Mayor of Atherton, California, Joseph Cao, the very first Vietnamese-American ever elected to Congress, Josh Pellerin, who has made a fortune in the oil and gas industry and who proudly champions his biracial identity, and Troy Hebert, a former State Senator and the former head of Louisiana’s Alcohol Tobacco Commission.
And there is also Rob Maness, a retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force who, only two years ago, ran for Senate and finished in third place, attracting more than 200,000 votes.
Last night, none of those candidates were invited to participate in the last statewide televised debate.
While there may be a legitimate reason to exclude Crawdaddy and Kaitlin the Comedian (despite the fact that she’d probably do quite well in the format), and cousin Scary Gary Landrieu (whose 15-point platform, for some reason, ends with a pledge to execute all traitors by firing squad), it seems much more difficult to justify excluding Mayor Marsala, Congressman Cao, Mr. Pellerin, and State Sen. Hebert, even if they aren’t registering yet in the polls; all of those men are actively campaigning for the job; all of them are qualified professionals.
But Raycom, the media conglomerate that produced the debate last night, decided- perhaps understandably- that they needed an objective criteria by which to determine the candidates who would be allowed on stage, lest it be an unwieldy free-for-all with more than a dozen candidates on stage. So, they commissioned a poll- their own poll– and declared that any candidate who received more than 5% support would be automatically included; the poll’s margin of error was 4%, which means it is possible that a candidate who polled at 5% could actually be at 1%.
As you may recall, during the most recent Republican Presidential primary, which included an astounding 17 different candidates, debate sponsors decided to host primetime debates with candidates who were polling in the top ten- or above a 3% threshold in national polling- and an earlier “kid’s table” debate with the remaining candidates. Although the lower-tiered candidates often cried foul at their exclusion from the primetime events, the criteria was never based on a single poll commissioned by the sponsor; rather, it relied on the averages of multiple polls conducted by different, independent organizations.
Given the crowded field and the interest in this election, Raycom could have easily adopted an identical criteria. Sure, it would have required more uninterrupted airtime, but it also would have provided a greater service to voters.
Clearly, however, the decision-makers at Raycom were not interested in providing a service to voters. Apparently, they were only interested in attracting the largest possible television audience, and to do that, they needed a celebrity.
It is unclear why, exactly, Raycom decided to use the arbitrary threshold of 5% in their poll as a criteria for making it onto the debate stage last night, but as luck would have it, David Duke somehow made the cut, by one tenth of one percent, 5.1%. What an enormously lucky break.
Every other candidate polled in the double digits. In other words, if Raycom had decided to make the threshold 10% instead, only one candidate would have been relegated to the kid’s table: David Duke.
If they had done that, there would have been five competent and qualified candidates- an Ivy League educated lawyer, a Rhodes Scholar, two physicians who have served multiple terms as members of Congress, and a career public servant with perhaps the best institutional knowledge of Louisiana political history than anyone in the race- all exchanging in a substantive discussion on the issues in front of an audience of young African-American college students.
Raycom was under no legal or ethical obligation to invite David Duke. They set their own criteria. They weren’t following any law. They were looking at the results of a single poll that they commissioned and hoping it would make for must-see-TV.
Let me be abundantly clear: As I have said before, David Duke can never win this election. He won’t even get close. This, for him, is a publicity stunt, a way for him to a build a following among a national and international audience of radical, alt-right white nationalists and capitalize on that following by selling self-published books and merchandise, just as he always has and just as he sold his campaign mailing lists decades ago. How do I know for certain?
Well, two years ago, while working on a follow-up on my story about Congressman Steve Scalise’s attendance at Duke’s white nationalist conference in Kenner, Louisiana back in 2002, I was provided his personal e-mail address. So, I wrote him to see if he had any recollection of that particular event or if he’d ever interacted with the Congressman. I never heard back from him directly, but I did find out, from someone who knew him as an acquaintance, that he was not very pleased I had discovered his personal e-mail address.
And then, less than two months ago, I received an e-mail invitation inviting me to connect on LinkedIn with an “E. Duke,” from his private address (his middle name is Ernest, and his e-mail address contained his middle name, not his first). It turns out “E. Duke” is trying to ramp up his new publishing company, in the middle of the campaign for U.S. Senate.
So, let’s not be fooled about this whole charade. He relishes in the attention, and despite his bluster, he knows he is not going to win. He knows he cannot win. But there is one thing he has always been good at winning- media attention, even if it is almost universally negative.
Raycom should have known better, and they could have done better.
Pat LaPlatney, the CEO of Raycom, owes the entire state of Louisiana an apology; we don’t need to hear his explanation about why they decided on a 5% threshold (in a poll with a 4% margin of error), because most of us understand what was really going on.
We need an apology, Mr. LaPlatney.
Dillard University needs an apology, Mr. LaPlatney.
The student protestors need an apology, Mr. LaPlatney.
The other candidates and their campaign staffs need an apology, Mr. LaPlatney.
David Duke has been embarrassing Louisiana for more than forty years. Last night, despite his tirades against the media, he did what he’s done for his entire career: He used a supplicant media organization chasing for ratings to help broadcast his ideology of hatred and division and anti-Semitism on live television, and Raycom was happy to take the bait, under the pretence of protecting free speech (which, of course, falls apart when one considers the company excluded 18 other candidates and barred student protesters from even entering the building).
Raycom didn’t want a debate; they wanted a must-see-TV spectacle. And as a result, they embarrassed the good people of Louisiana just as much as David Duke does, and they deprived voters from a robust discussion of the policies that matter most in Louisiana.