If there’s anything the televised debates of the past two years in Louisiana have taught us, says Jeremy Alford, it’s that the state desperately needs to create a nonpartisan, nonprofit commission on statewide TV debates.
“There’s already a template to follow with the Commission on Presidential Debates, and there are most certainly several lessons to be learned from the 2015 and 2016 debates that were conducted in the Bayou State,” Alford writes in his latest column.
During last year’s race for governor, Alford notes, a televised debate held in New Orleans fell short on posing important questions about the issues facing Louisiana—so much so that it overshadowed the actual responses.
“The reaction on social media, and on editorial pages, was harsh. And rightfully so,” he writes, noting a subsequent gubernatorial debate held in Ruston banned the general public and reporters from being in the same room with the candidates.
“But the moment that should have shaken us all into realizing there’s something wrong arrived during this year’s U.S. Senate election, when a televised debate was conducted last week on the campus of Dillard University in New Orleans,” Alford writes. “It was likewise off limits to the press and general public, a decision that resulted in not-so-peaceful protests that garnered national headlines. The process for how the candidates were selected to participate has since fallen under fire as well, with suggestions that ratings trumped fairness.”
In the end, all three of these debates were better suited to the politics of the candidates than the need to better inform voters, Alford says.
“When we start allowing statewide candidates to debate on college campuses—now seemingly on an annual basis—without even permitting students to attend, that’s a problem,” he writes. “When we let private corporations not only organize these cornerstones of voter education, but also dictate how reporters should cover them, that’s a problem too.”
What’s needed now, Alford says, is a group of concerned citizens who will tackle these challenges without political intent.
“But an independent commission on statewide debates would also require buy-ins from both of the major state parties, with Republican and Democratic leaders agreeing to see this idea through to fruition,” he writes. “Once that small group of idealists is in place, a trusted good government organization, like the Public Affairs Research Council, should partner up with LSU or another higher education institution to study the role of televised debates in the statewide election process. This tracks how the Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 and it can serve Louisiana just as well.”