Brown’s reasons for rejecting debate make no sense

Tom Brokaw

This commentary is also online at the Huffington Post.

What we were talking about, in case U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s diversionary tactics led you astray, was a televised debate, held before a neutral audience, to be moderated by Tom Brokaw. Everything else is baloney.

As you no doubt already know, Brown made two demands that had to be met before he would agree to a debate with his Democratic rival, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.

The first was that Vicki Kennedy, president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which would sponsor the debate, refrain from endorsing a candidate for “the duration of the Senate race.”

The second was that the debate be carried only by local media outlets and not by “out-of-state cable networks with a reputation for political advocacy” — clear reference to the liberal outlet MSNBC, which had been mentioned as a possibility.

Both demands were ridiculous because they were irrelevant. But when Vicki Kennedy rejected the first of those demands, that was enough for Brown to say no.

(At this point I suppose I should include a non-disclosure: I’m not related to those Kennedys.)

Brown might have been able to make a reasonable case for asking Vicki Kennedy not to endorse until after the debate. But demanding that she refrain for “the duration” was just silly. If the media consortium that includes the Boston Globe schedules a debate, will Brown insist that the Globe not endorse? And what will Brown say if the Boston Herald, as is its wont, puts together its own debate? Surely he won’t ask the paper to withhold its all-but-certain Brown endorsement.

As for MSNBC, the debate organizers could prevent the channel from carrying it live. Afterwards, though, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and company would be free to show clips and comment on them whether they had carried the full debate or not. The fair-use provision of the copyright law guarantees that — not to mention the First Amendment.

And why did I say the debate would be held before a neutral audience? Because you can be sure the Brown and Warren campaigns would insist on equal numbers of partisans in the audience. So the Kennedy Institute’s sponsorship isn’t an issue, either.

I know some observers have questioned Brokaw’s alleged liberal bias. But since that hasn’t been raised by the Brown campaign, we have to assume he had no problem with Brokaw as moderator. When Brokaw moderated a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, he seemed mainly interested in making sure neither candidate exceeded his allotted time. Liberal or not, Brokaw has earned his status as a fair-minded journalist who can be trusted not to throw the debate to either candidate.

It’s also hard to figure why Brown suddenly has a problem with Vicki Kennedy or the Kennedy Institute, given that he took part in a debate with Martha Coakley two years ago that was co-sponsored by the institute without setting any preconditions. As Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis points out, it was only a year ago that Brown couldn’t say enough good things about the late Ted Kennedy’s widow.

Globe columnist Scot Lehigh thinks Brown’s demands were “reasonable,” and he gives the senator credit for sticking to them. Yet Lehigh doesn’t tell us what Brown could possibly gain by failing to take part.

As my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on political debates, puts it, “They’re making such an ­effort to portray Brown as someone with bipartisan credentials who can work with Democrats, and yet here’s this relatively mild example of cooperating with a Democrat, and they’re balking at it.”

Boston Phoenix political columnist David Bernstein wonders if Brown is trying to curry favor with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which has had its own issues with Vicki Kennedy.

Who knows what Brown and his advisers are thinking? Their political astuteness is generally beyond question. Maybe this will prove to be a smart move. Right now, though, it looks like a rare misstep, especially curious given that Brown initially made the Warren campaign look flat-footed with his rapid acceptance of several debate invitations.

My own bias is in favor of as many debates as possible, regardless of the venue. For instance, I don’t understand why Warren won’t say yes to WBZ Radio (AM 1030) talk-show host Dan Rea, who is conservative but is as fair as they come.

The candidates really don’t have anything better to do. How would we prefer they spend their time? Making television ads? Attending fundraisers? Of course not. They should spend as much time as possible side by side, talking about the issues. It’s not always the most edifying experience, but it’s better than any conceivable alternatives.

Photo (cc) by Michael Kwan and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

One from the heart

I’m not an Ed Schultz fan. And of course MSNBC did the right thing by suspending Schultz for a week for calling Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut” and a “talk slut” on his radio show. But give him this: I can’t remember the last time I saw an apology as abject and sincere as Schultz’s. I hope we see a better Ed when he returns.

Ingraham accepts Schultz’s apology.

What’s next in the cable news wars

Rachel Maddow

Three quick hits on the continued fallout over Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC:

1. It looks like MSNBC’s response has been to give promotions to everyone rather than consider what might work best. The network is feeding Lawrence O’Donnell to the wolf (i.e., Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly) at 8 p.m. And Ed Schultz at 10? Really? Aren’t all his viewers in bed by then?

If I were MSNBC honcho Phil Griffin, I’d move Chris Matthews to 8. Matthews is much maligned (I’ve maligned him myself), but he’s still weirdly compelling after all these years. His energy and passion are likely to hold Olbermann’s losses to a minimum. Let Schultz have the 7 o’clock hour and see what he can do with it.

I agree with Griffin’s decision to keep Rachel Maddow at 9. I realize she would do better against O’Reilly than anyone else, but she’s now the franchise, and protecting the franchise is important. If her ratings were to drop below Olbermann’s, it would demoralize the whole operation. And I’d keep O’Donnell at 10, too.

2. CNN, which has slipped behind MSNBC in the prime-time ratings, has an opportunity to take advantage of the Olbermann mess. I’ll confess I haven’t seen Piers Morgan’s new talk show yet, but the clips look very promising — a huge step up from Larry King.

I’ve always liked Anderson Cooper better than “Anderson Cooper 360.” Whatever’s wrong with the show can be fixed. And here’s what’s wrong: inconsistency (you never know whether you’re going to get a solid newscast or tabloid trash) and the two-hour length, which has led CNN to use much of the 10 o’clock hour to flog what’s coming at 11.

The solutions are fairly simple. Cut the newscast to an hour, rebroadcasting Piers Morgan at 11; and up the intelligence quotient.

CNN executives will still need to deal with the toxic-waste pit that is “Parker Spitzer” at 8. I’d move John King’s politically oriented newscast to that slot and cross my fingers.

3. Barring any unexpected bombshells, Bill Carter and Brian Stelter’s take on why Olbermann left seems pretty definitive. But though Comcast, the incoming owner of NBC Universal, appears to have its corporate hands clean, my expectation is that at some point the company will blow up MSNBC.

Maybe it will happen soon. Maybe it won’t happen until Comcast wants to curry favor with a new Republican administration in the White House. But it will happen.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.