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Posted November 26, 2003

The debate debacle
A San Francisco mayoral forum unravels, as does one TV station's civic contribution

By Michael Stoll

In a two-man race for mayor, a debate missing one of the candidates is akin to the sound of one hand clapping.

But that's just what KGO Channel 7 is planning after a tussle with candidate Matt Gonzalez who boycotted the "debate" when the station rebuffed his insistence on having more than 60 seconds to answer reporters' questions.

On Monday KGO taped what will be a half-hour infomercial for candidate Gavin Newsom. Mr. Newsom, for all his talents, is incapable of debating himself.

It may make little difference, however. KGO is holding the tape for replay at one of television's least watched time periods, Sunday morning, on Nov. 30.

KPIX takes a different approach

In contrast, KPIX Channel 5 has scheduled an hour-long commercial-free live debate on Tuesday, Dec. 2 in which candidates will have up to two minutes to answer questions. The program is slotted to air at a time when all can watch, 7 p.m.

KPIX was willing to accept seven revisions during vigorous negotiations with the candidates, according to the San Francisco League of Women Voters, which facilitated the discussion.

KGO News Director Kevin Keeshan, on the other hand, issued Mr. Gonzalez an ultimatum: "We told them we're going to go forward, and if you're not there, there is going to be an empty podium next to Gavin Newsom."

The station says it has no plans to extend Mr. Gonzalez an opportunity for a second chance.

Ross Mirkarimi, a spokesman for Mr. Gonzalez, said the candidate called the station late last week to complain about the proposed format for the debate, one-minute answers to questions and 30-second rebuttals. He argued that was not enough time to give "substantive" responses to reporters' questions. Mr. Mirkarimi said the Gonzalez campaign asked KGO to change the format, but that Mr. Newsom's side refused so KGO went with the status quo.

The Newsom campaign counters that there was no negotiation. "There may have been some back and forth," said John Shanley, a Newsom spokesman. "But we're not dictating to these media outlets about the formats. Television likes shorter answers."

In the absence of a central authority or standard operating procedures in politics, most televised debates involve some form of negotiation. Often it's the lighting or the timing or a foot stool to prop up a shorter candidate, said Mary Hilton, vice president of the San Francisco chapter of the League of Women Voters.

A 60 second limit?

At KGO, Mr. Keeshan said management insisted on the one-minute limit in deference to the League. He also said the reporters were not prepared to throw out half their questions because the rules changed at the last minute. There were so many topics to cover, he said.

"This is a standard debate format that is used universally," Mr Keeshan said. "One minute is a long time for someone to espouse their views on any topic. It's not like this is an unorthodox format. We felt the debate would be limited if you had twice as much time to answer."

But Ms. Hilton said that while one-minute answers are "the standard starting point," they are by no means mandatory. In fact, the League's program manager, Virginia Grandi, advocated negotiation, but found out about the disagreement too late to sway KGO.

"It just seemed like KGO didn't want to revise the format," she said. "They wanted to stick with the exact same format of the mayoral debate of the top six candidates."

The forum that preceded the Nov. 4 general election was so crowded that by necessity all candidates' responses were shortened. Mr. Gonzalez's campaign argued that a two-man debate needed to be more in-depth. But that was not the only objection.

"I think the real larger issue is why they would have a debate taped on a Monday night and shown the following Sunday morning before the football game," said Randy Shaw, a Gonzalez spokesman. "Nobody's going to watch it. Have you ever heard of a debate that's taped and delayed for days?"

Mr. Keeshan was equally indignant at the Gonzalez camp.

"It's unfortunate, and we would have loved to have had both candidates, but it was the Gonzalez campaign's choice not to show up," Mr. Keeshan said. "In 25 years as a broadcast journalist, I've participated in numerous debates. Never has a candidate not shown up for a broadcast debate. This is a first for a lot of us."

The Chronicle offers flexibility

Mr. Gonzalez also declined to participate in an informal dual-candidate editorial-board meeting at the San Francisco Chronicle Tuesday.

Newsom did show up, and got a hearing before a group that has already endorsed him once for mayor, during the general election. The discussion was videotaped and posted to the Chronicle's Web site (http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/archive/2003/11/25/newsomivu.DTL). Dick Rogers, the paper's reader representative, said that John Diaz, the editorial page editor, would extend the same opportunity to Mr. Gonzalez separately.

Mr. Rogers said the paper sympathized with Mr. Gonzalez's concerns about timing and would not limit response.

"As a matter of principle I'm not fond of putting people in these tight little boxes," Mr. Rogers said. "When we're talking about complex policy issues that are arcane it sometimes looks like a bowl of spaghetti. It's a lot to expect someone to untangle that in a minute."

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