On Thursday evening, four Republicans seeking the Republican nomination for Oregon governor will get 57 minutes of commercial-free airtime to make their case directly to voters in a debate co-hosted by KOIN 6 and Pamplin Media Group.
Not everybody is happy about it.
We get it. The event will feature one-fifth of the 19 GOP gubernatorial candidates on the May 17 primary ballot. To many people, that's not fair. So why do the media feel compelled to set criteria to separate "leading/serious" candidates from the others?
One answer: math.
If, as several readers and campaigns suggested, we included every candidate on the debate stage, each would have time for a brief opening statement, a one-minute response to one question and a closing statement. That's a series of soundbites, not a debate.
Another answer: quality control.
Part of journalists' role is to separate the important from the inconsequential. We are not archivists nor stenographers. The people who rely on us for news understand that we can't report on everything, so we have to use our best judgment to determine what doesn't get covered. And, in our view, not everyone who gets their name on a ballot warrants media attention. Some may be unqualified. Others may be unelectable. Too many are doing it for personal advancement or ego gratification. As is typical, a few this year have not raised any money or responded to inquiries from the press.
That's why in preparing for Thursday's debate, we sent all the candidates a list of criteria for determining who would be invited to the live TV debate in Portland (and a tape-delayed debate last week in Bend), who would qualify for a livestream Zoom forum earlier in the day Friday, and who would not make the cut.
The bar was low. Any candidate who had a campaign website, had raised at least $50,000, and polled above 5% got in the TV debates. Those who met the financial threshold but polled below 5% were invited to the livestream.
We know that this decision was unpopular (and we have the nasty emails and at least one threatening voicemail to prove it). But it's not an either/or situation, and the focus shouldn't be solely on debates.
Earlier this year, a small group of journalists, led by Les Zaitz of the Oregon Capital Chronicle, listened in as voters from across the state talked about what they wanted from the media to help them make informed decisions in the 2022 elections.
We heard a few common themes. One was that many engaged Oregonians still trust their local journalists to be objective and fair. And yet, they don't want us to pick "winners" and "losers" among candidates — particularly when a key metric is money. Given that sentiment, it wasn't surprising that there was blowback when the limitations of a televised debate format forced us to do just that.
But we also heard that voters want information about the candidates' positions on key issues in a format that allows for easy comparisons. In a race with two — even a handful — of candidates, many newsrooms regularly do that.
But when you add the Democrats, 34 candidates are competing for governor on the May ballot. Unfortunately, no single Oregon newsroom has the resources to vet them all. But together, we can — and have — given voters some great resources to at least compare the complete lineup.
Toward that end, with a big assist from the Agora Journalism Center, journalists from around the state crafted 15 pointed questions about five key topics.
The questions were posed to every Republican and Democratic candidate running in the May primary, regardless of the money they raised or their ranking in the polls.
On Thursday afternoon we will post their response at bit.ly/or-media-collab. As of Monday, April 25, two-thirds of the candidates had replied.
This collaborative project won't win any of us Pulitzer Prizes. However, given the short amount of time we had to work with, it's impressive.
Hopefully, it lays the foundation for something more ambitious in the fall — something that will be more satisfying to the folks who voiced their displeasure about the debates.
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