WDSU’s news director on Friday defended the station’s handling Thursday night of the first televised debate featuring the four major gubernatorial candidates, following a torrent of criticism on social media and blogs during and after the hourlong event.
Jonathan Shelley, the news director at the NBC affiliate in New Orleans, did admit to second-guessing the lack of attention given to questions on the state’s deep budget problems and concerns over higher education funding.
WDSU anchor Scott Walker asked the six candidates their views on the jailing of the Kentucky clerk of court who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, gun laws in the wake of a mass shooting earlier in the day, whether they belong to a gun group, the campaign by conservatives to defund Planned Parenthood, the legalization of recreational and medicinal marijuana and even whether any of the six men had ever smoked pot — before asking them late in the debate about the Common Core education standards.
The candidates were not asked how they would address the state’s budget woes, which policy experts say will be the biggest issue facing the next governor.
“It was our intention to discuss the budget in depth,” Shelley said in a phone interview. “It was our error. We should have found a way to spend more time on it.”
The four major candidates at the debate were Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, U.S. Sen. David Vitter and state Rep. John Bel Edwards, the lone Democrat.
Officials with the Dardenne and Edwards campaigns said Friday that they would have preferred more of a focus on Louisiana-related issues involving the budget, transportation and education. A spokesman for Angelle said all the questions were important. A spokesman for Vitter did not return a phone call.
Shelley said the debate scored an average 6.2 rating — meaning that 6.2 percent of the households in metro New Orleans watched it. That translates into 39,000 households, but even more watched it online or in other markets.
Overall, Shelley pronounced himself satisfied with the questions asked by Walker, which he said had been devised by a team of five, including himself. “These were legitimate subjects to discuss,” Shelley said.
Many people watching the debate live on WDSU or on its live stream seemed to think otherwise.
“All social issues, 30 minutes in, nothing Louisiana specific,” tweeted Andrew Tuozzolo, a campaign consultant and Democratic legislative aide.
Wesley Bayas, who identifies himself as a “builder of community capacity,” referred to the Kentucky clerk of court when he tweeted a few minutes later, “Kim Davis: 10 mins. Weed: 10 mins. Healthcare: 0 min. K-12 education: 0 mins. Economic development: 0 mins.”
When it was over, Kevin Boyd, a contributor to The Hayride, a conservative blog, wrote: “This debate was a complete farce. It was so bad that I really could not give grades to the candidates and that’s not their fault. The fault lies with the moderator and WDSU.”
WDSU’s Shelley noted the widespread speculation that Vitter got the questions in advance as a stipulation to appear, a view stoked by his three opponents’ campaigns.
“I keep hearing that surface,” he said. “That’s really disturbing. We don’t do that.”
Shelley said he had no regrets about including two minor candidates. They were Jeremy Odom, a Baptist preacher from Natchitoches, and Cary Deaton, a New Orleans attorney and former prosecutor.
Many others questioned the decision.
“Learning that Rev. Odom may have smoked pot once is not useful to voters,” said Martin Johnson, a professor of mass communication and political science at LSU. Odom was the only candidate who admitted to that.
Dardenne, Angelle and Edwards have agreed to participate in five more TV debates, while Vitter has said he will not appear on those scheduled on WVLA-TV in Baton Rouge or on Louisiana Public Broadcasting. Vitter has agreed to appear on an Oct. 15 debate organized by Louisiana Tech, in Ruston. The four campaigns have gotten conflicting signals on whether they will receive the questions in advance. Jeremy Mhire, the professor organizing the event, did not return phone calls Friday afternoon.
Vitter has yet to confirm whether he will appear at a statewide televised debate that Raycom Media is organizing on Oct. 19. It will be held in the front parlor room of the Governor’s Mansion, and Fox 8 New Orleans anchor John Snell will moderate it.
“I’m still optimistic he will participate,” said Vicki Zimmerman, Raycom’s regional news director in Louisiana, referring to Vitter. She said his campaign had not set any parameters for participating.
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.