Travel with NinetyNine back to the year 1960.
That September, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced off in the nation’s first-ever televised presidential debate, an event which politicos hold up as providing election-defining contrasts between the young, handsome upstart and the sweaty not-quite-ready-for-bright-camera-lights vice president.
Forgive us for thinking about that old chestnut when word broke Wednesday night (and early Thursday morning) that NBC10 scrapped plans for a televised debate between mayoral candidates James F. Kenney (D) and Melissa Murray Bailey (R).
The alleged reason for the aforementioned nixing? The Kenney campaign opposed camera “‘cut-aways’ to reactions of a candidate while an opposing candidate was answering a question.”
Granted, Kenney didn’t come off as Nixonian in the primary season’s televised debates, but political lessons learned about the power of television continue five and a half decades later.
Our friends at The Next Mayor had the story first. Here’s how they framed it, complete with allusions to concert-rider nuance:
The campaign had submitted a six-page “memorandum of understanding” to the station, containing more than 60 prerequisites for the debate. The document dictated everything from camerawork, the number and size of dressing rooms each campaign would be assigned, and how many bottles of water each candidate would receive (two, for the record).
The Kenney campaign said that the document was intended to keep focus on “the issues” and that other television stations had agreed to the requirements. Both campaigns had signed off on the agreement.
However, in emails obtained by Philly.com, Anzio Williams, NBC10 vice president of news, argues that the memorandum was so controlling that agreeing to it “jeopardizes the integrity of the debate and the standards of the journalistic organizations participating.”
In an email exchange that the Next Mayor kindly shared with NinetyNine, Williams told the Kenney campaign on Wednesday afternoon that the plan to host a debate at Temple University died “due to the production demands of the Kenney Campaign.”
“I understand both campaigns previously determined the ground rules which are traditionally the format for the debate,” he wrote. “Determining the production elements for television portion is the responsibility of the TV partner. I wish we could have reached a different outcome.”
This quickly became the Hubbub Which Pierced the Doldrums of a Slow Summer For Mayoral-Campaign News. It also afforded Bailey an opportunity to take a dig at a competitor who many observers think will cakewalk to victory in November.
“Jim Kenney is finally showing his true colors by using career politician tricks to protect his career politician job,” Bailey told NinetyNine early Thursday morning. “The people of Philadelphia deserve a real debate on issues, in prime time when they can see it.
“I’m ready, willing and able to face the public and face Jim Kenney. Like Chip Kelley (sic) said, ‘We’re from Philadelphia and we fight.’ I’ll fight for everyone in Philadelphia, and stand up to the corrupt political machine. Jim Kenney is a product of that machine, and now he’s hiding behind it.”
As expected, Kenney campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt had a decidedly different interpretation of events, noting that both campaigns crafted the “memorandum of understanding” while concurring that the “close-up, split screen [shot] while someone was talking [was] the only objection.”
“NBC10 walked away because they couldn’t do that shot while the candidates were speaking,” Hitt maintained. “We even said that they could do that shot while they weren’t speaking. The networks reaction was totally outsized. The objection was that the focus should be on the person who was speaking.”
Sure, Hitt continued, they acknowledged the “journalistic need” to show reaction shots, which is why they didn’t ask for a total prohibition.
“We felt that particular close-up made it too ‘him versus her,'” explained Hitt. “The whole goal of these debates was to focus on the issues, not the horse race.”
Longtime political consultant Larry Ceisler said Thursday that these sorts of battles aren’t all that rare.
“Obviously, NBC10 is looking for compelling viewing in an otherwise predictable campaign,” he said. “To their credit, they have really upped their game when it comes to local news, so I do not doubt their commitment to wanting to host this. But at the same time, I would assume they believe they are reinforcing their commitment to local public affairs programming and obviously forgoing revenue to air this.”
Ceisler also noted that the debate may not be dead.
“My guess is the two sides still find a way to get this done,” he said. “Kenney is not the loser here, only the GOP candidate and NBC10, so Kenney has no real incentive here except at the end of the day, having a televised debate is the right thing to do.”
NBC10’s Williams told NinetyNine he hopes it can be salvaged, emailing that “”NBC10 & Telemundo62 remain interested in hosting a debate without the restrictions and demands of the Kenney campaign.”
This post was updated to reflect the fact that the Kenney campaign took issue with close-up, split-screen shots while someone was talking as opposed to cut-aways in general and to add a comment from NBC10.