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Win for Whitfield is a Loss for Public Access
I am sitting here on a Tuesday afternoon feeling that something’s been irretrievably lost. The decision to allow Rep. Whitfield to substitute an infomercial for honest debate is a blow to all of us. Be assured if a leftwing dictator or Vladimir Putin sent a prepared statement to a debate, Rep. Whitfield would be thundering about an assault on democracy.
When it’s in his favor? Well, that’s different.
KET was cleverly boxed in and outmaneuvered by the Whitfield camp. Both candidates were invited to participate in the KET October candidates’ forum way back in July. Ryan immediately accepted. Whitfield declined.  
At that point, KET in the past would have gone on with the event. Under a convoluted interpretation of federal law presented by Rep. Whitfield and/or his attorneys, refusing to participate in democracy resulted in less democratic discourse. Because there are only two candidates, the debate should have been cancelled.  The “empty chair” debate is not allowed under federal election law. That would have suited Rep. Whitfield’s two fold purpose: not to give Ryan the “dignity” of sharing a television camera with him and avoiding any embarrassing questions from the media.
But Rep. Whitfield, clever fellow and member of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, went that extra mile to strike a blow for incumbency that will come back to haunt us all. He asked for “equal time” and KET, after consulting their Washington attorney, Todd Gray, felt it had no choice to give him what he asked for.
Under the fair access doctrine, the public airways must be neutral. They cannot favor one candidate over another. (And before you sputter, this rule does NOT include MSNBC and FoxNews-who do not do debates – they do interviews.)   What Whitfield and KET worked out was a previously taped video to be aired after her segment with two reporters that his opponent was not allowed to see or rebut before it aired.
Todd Gray, KET’s Washington attorney, was adamant on the point of airing the video sight unseen by Ryan. He was firmly of the belief that KET had two choices – cancel the event or accede to the Whitfield proposal.
Rep. Whitfield’s mind numbing fireside chat was a litany of his activities in fourteen years on Capitol. It is telling that the entire recitation including the happy to be here and I’m here for you segments took six minutes. The press will not challenge his recitation for exaggeration or accuracy.
Whitfield’s strategy worked because there is little, if any, independent mainstream press here in the 1st Congressional District. But don't blame this problem all on the press: if there are few tough interviews, there is even less public outrage at a candidate blowing off questions. Human nature being what it is, if a candidate doesn’t have to subject themselves to the maddening crowd, he won’t. Nobody in their right minds likes to be uncomfortable and Western Kentuckians are especially fond of their comfort zones.
He is not the first Kentucky politician to enjoy insulation from questions that start out, “What are you doing and why are you doing it?”  Incumbents, especially those outside the metropolitan areas, just aren’t challenged by the press. Asking elected officials policy questions is a lost art for rural newspapers. Small towns are so much more go along to get along than their metro counterparts. We live pretty much in sight of each other. Like the Japanese; sometimes we prize politeness over politics.
Whitfield’s cold blooded manipulation of KET is pointless in one context. Ryan is an underdog with few funds to match his million plus dollars in the bank. Her chances of countering his attack on the public airways with commercials on network television are miniscule. He chose not to even mention her in his segment, choosing to run an “I love me” commercial.
In another context, he is the Daniel Boone of trailblazers of dismantling the public access system. One of the cornerstones of KET is fair debate and honest information. In future, when faced with this situation, KET will simply forego any debates or forums to save themselves legal fees and public criticism. Challengers without the juice to run commercials with their own spin will not get a hearing. Incumbents of both parties should be popping the champagne.
The smartest way to test an innovative strategy is somewhere no one will see or react to its success or failure. Rep. Whitfield was the volunteer who tested an incumbent’s obligation to show up and answer questions.
He won his six minutes of unfettered access to the airways. The rest of us lost another piece of the “people’s right to know”.

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