I’ve watched two mayoral debates. I suspect that might be two more than most voters. It is not necessarily because of voter apathy. It’s my job as a newspaper columnist, who sometimes writes about local politics, to watch these debates when I can.
The problem is good luck knowing beforehand when a mayoral debate will be televised. The only reason I have been able to watch two of the debates is I stumbled upon them. Even the guide on my cable system listed regularly scheduled shows instead of the debate. Folks who are not consumed by politics, but want to be able to cast an informed vote for mayor have even less chance of figuring out when the debates are on.
Sad to say that even if residents saw televised debates on NBC 10 and FOX 29 as I did, they likely don’t have much more information today upon which to cast an intelligent vote. That is how poorly both stations ran their debates. Candidly, I can not speak about the other debates that may have been televised, so I’ll confine my comments to those two telecasts.
Let’s be clear about something: No matter how well-run one of these debates, the fact is that they are not debates — not on the local level or even during presidential campaigns when they are hosted by the national media. Essentially, what they are is a series of statements by the candidates in response to questions either by a moderator or in a town meeting format. At times, candidates are allowed to question one another or a follow-up question is asked. I did not see either technique employed on the televised debates by NBC 10 or FOX 29. This gets us to the crux of the problem: Neither station seemed especially prepared to handle their televised debates.
In the first TV debate I watched, the NBC 10 moderator was Jim Rosenfield, a reporter who did not arrive at the station until 2013. I mention that fact because Rosenfield’s comparative lack of background in Philadelphia politics might have played into his poor performance as moderator. To be fair to Rosenfield, he had to deal with the sudden collapse of former District Attorney Lynn Abraham early in the proceedings. At the moment it happened, there was no way to know whether Abraham’s condition was serious. That fact alone could have unnerved the most veteran of reporters.
As it was, Rosenfield became rattled. He seemed ill at ease by the antics of candidate Milton Street. Rosenfield did not know how to react to Street. He was obviously caught off guard, which allowed Street, at times, to take over the debate. Any veteran observer of Philadelphia politics would have been prepared for Street, who’s been playing the role of provocateur for ages around these parts. Did no one from the NBC 10 staff brief Rosenfield about the candidate beforehand?
Many of Rosenfield’s questions were pathetically shallow. He allowed candidates to mouth banal replies without following up with hard questions. Perhaps the most embarrassing part of the format came when Rosenfield required the candidates to reply with a “yes” or “no” answer. Exactly what information are voters supposed to glean from a “yes” or “no” answer to complex issues? Why no follow-up questions to ask candidates to justify their answers?
The televised debate from Saint Joseph’s University by FOX 29 was, if anything, worse. I missed the first five minutes or so, again because I did not know it was on. I needed my son to shout down to me that the debate was on and the moderator was asking questions about Philadelphia sports teams. The moderator was Lucy Noland of FOX 29, a reporter, who much like Rosenfield, seemed overmatched. Why she began the debate talking about Philly sports teams, if there was any serious intent, was a point I missed.
Noland, like Rosenfield, is new to Philly. She came from Los Angeles just last year to join FOX 29, according to the background provided by the TV station. That fact seemed also to affect her ability to handle the moderator’s job.
None of the candidates collapsed onstage during the FOX debate, but it did not mean there were not any uneasy moments. FOX’s format included taking questions from the audience. I believe it was Iain Page who was the roving reporter in the audience (if I am wrong, I stand corrected). The first question was from a young guy who seemed to think he was responding to a job interview. Page awkwardly tried to cut the guy off after he had wasted valuable time without asking his question. Apparently a producer behind the scenes signaled to Page to let him ask his question, after Page was already prepared to go back to Noland and move on. Neither the guy’s question or a later one taken from the audience was anything special.
Unfortunately, FOX learned nothing from the NBC 10 debate, and its moderator also asked questions requiring “yes” and “no” answers. Sample question: If you were not running, which candidate would you support? All of the candidates except Jim Kenney, treated the question less than seriously and named FOX personality Mike Jerrick. Kenney interestingly named Doug Oliver, but was never asked why. Through it all, Noland smiled, something voters couldn’t do after these debates.
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