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political debates
NonDoc and Griffin Communications have partnered to produce 10 public political debates in 2022. (Michael Duncan)

Last week, the rest of the country (sort of) learned that I have been organizing and co-moderating political debates in Oklahoma for the past three election cycles. As will happen when national media boil a 90-minute gubernatorial debate down to a 30-second clip, a bit of chaos ensued.

The clip featured Democrat Joy Hofmeister and Republican Kevin Stitt disagreeing Wednesday night over state-by-state violent crime rankings, and it included me (off camera) saying, “Well, we’ll have that fact-checked by The Frontier, superintendent.” My remark was an attempt to move the debate forward and a reference to our fact-checking partnership, which had been mentioned throughout the night.

But when I saw the 30-second clip had been tweeted out by an actor-turned podcaster with 295,000 followers and an IMDB credit as “hot guy” in the 2014 movie Dumbbells, I knew the context of my comment would be lost. The podcaster, Brian Tyler Cohen, tweeted that I “refused to believe” Hofmeister’s statement, and as far as the nation’s social media masses were concerned, I was just some doofus — a “snide rat,” according to one anonymous email — who stinks at his job.

By Thursday morning, Yahoo and the Washington Post had both published pieces about the clip and the statistical dispute, pointing out that Hofmeister’s rankings were accurate and Stitt’s skepticism was awkward at best. As you might guess, the national political writers admitted that they had not actually watched the full debate, nor even the six-minute criminal justice discussion that had begun with questions about the death penalty. I appreciated those journalists’ willingness to take my calls and hear my concerns, and the Post’s piece was updated to remove the podcaster’s tweet and include more context, such as the full debate video.

Still, by Friday morning, the clip had inspired a segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, in which Mika Brzezinski essentially said I was condescending and ignorant. More emails and tweets ensued, with some even bashing The Frontier’s staff members for not crushing rails of amphetamines and producing the fact check piece overnight. Fortunately, the madness subsided over the weekend.

To start this week, then, I thought I would pen this short piece updating the public on a few things related to political debates in Oklahoma. It might not be as fun as the misadventure described above, but I hope it answers a few questions and keeps people talking about political debates.

Developing story: I do not run a TV station

If you would like to watch the aforementioned gubernatorial debate that we produced in partnership with Griffin Communications — which operates News 9 in Oklahoma City and News on 6 in Tulsa — you can do so on the News 9 website or via the YouTube video embedded below.

I have been asked more times than I can count why the debate was not aired on any of News 9 or News on 6’s TV channels — in real time or after the fact. My simple answer is this: You need to ask them. They run a pair of TV stations, and I do not. Griffin has been a good partner in our effort to bring public debates to Oklahoma, but NonDoc has no say in how they choose to handle the broadcasting of events.

Personally, I appreciate News 9’s partnership on the 10 political debates we have orchestrated this year (so far), and I had hoped their stations’ leadership would air the 90-minute debate on at least one of their secondary channels, particularly for the benefit of seniors and those with limited means for internet access. As of now, I have been told that will not happen, so I will refer you to the video embedded here:

Finally, a state superintendent debate Tuesday

At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 25, Fox 25 is scheduled to host, televise and stream a debate between state superintendent of public instruction candidates Ryan Walters and Jena Nelson. If you can’t watch the debate live, NonDoc’s education reporter, Bennett Brinkman, will be taking notes and writing up a recap for the next day.

NonDoc and other media outlets also proposed debates between Walters, the Republican nominee, and Nelson, the Democratic nominee. Nelson’s campaign accepted NonDoc’s offer and other proposals. After a great deal of prodding, the Walters campaign declined to participate, referencing a busy schedule that I presume is chock full of videos recorded inside a car.

That means all eyes should be on today’s Fox 25 debate. Tune in at 5 p.m. or look for the recap.

Cathy Cummings, Myles Davidson are refusing to debate

In the race for an open Oklahoma County District 3 commissioner position, neither Democrat Cathy Cummings nor Republican Myles Davidson has been willing to agree to a debate with NonDoc.

What are their reasons? Well, both Cummings and Davidson have articulated that they see no benefit for themselves in having a debate. Pressed to acknowledge that hearing candidates answer key questions about Oklahoma County policies and issues would be good for voters, neither candidate has changed their mind — so far. I guess neither candidate wants to stand before voters and answer questions about the troubled Oklahoma County Jail?

Still, the important issues facing this county demand that we keep pushing for a debate, and I hope this blurb will lead both Cummings and Davidson to reconsider and agree to a matchup.

State needs debate commission in 2024

The audience listens to candidates Joy Hofmeister and Kevin Stitt participate in a gubernatorial debate Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, at the Will Rogers Theatre in Oklahoma City. (Michael Duncan)

For future election cycles, I have a personal hope that a state “debate commission” can be formed among Oklahoma news media. Such a body would put TV stations, print outlets, nonprofit newsrooms and radio stations on the same page to help ensure that a plethora of debates will be held for the benefit of the electorate. This cycle, I know that other media have proposed additional gubernatorial debates, as well as debates for Oklahoma’s two U.S. Senate seats, which are both up for election this cycle. I wish the leading candidates for those races would participate in those proposed debates with various outlets.

I fully admit that NonDoc has benefited in certain ways from being the primary host of political debates in Oklahoma for the past few years. The events bring in sponsorship money, and they introduce new people to our work. But I have never much cared for bragging about holding “the only” debate for any given race, and I know the state’s news outlets are stronger when we work together in partnership than when we work against one another in competition.

I also remember what I learned in journalism school. When making editorial decisions, journalists should always ask themselves a question: What is in the best interest of our readers or our viewers? When it comes to political debates, the answer is simple. The public benefits from seeing candidates on stage answering fair questions, and voters don’t care about the exclusivity impetus or station-versus-station competition.

To that end, I hope many news outlets cover tonight’s state superintendent debate, and I hope, in the future, our news ecosystem can establish greater cooperation that ensures candidates for important offices will participate each election cycle. I believe the debates that have happened in recent election cycles have improved the quality of civic dialogue in Oklahoma, and I am proud to play a role in that, even if it means I might become fodder for national pundits.

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William W. Savage III (Tres) has served as the editor in chief of NonDoc since the publication launched in September 2015. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and covered two sessions of the Oklahoma Legislature for eCapitol.net before working in health care for six years. He is a nationally certified Mental Health First Aid instructor.