Last night's KELO Senate debate was an example of substandard political journalism by South Dakota's broadcast media. Moderators Ben Dunsmoor and Don Jorgensen failed to live up to their own promised format, to manage the debate fairly, or to ask any probing follow-up questions of the candidates.
Jorgensen and Dunsmoor opened the show by promising something different from the usual debate format. They promised a free-flowing conversation, with time limits only on the opening and closing statements. They said they would intervene if candidates got off track. They said they would jump in to move the conversation along and ask follow-up questions.
No such forum happened. We got the usual debate format: question, responses and rebuttals in pre-determined order. The conversation never flowed freely. On one occasion when Howie tried to challenge Rounds out after the usual rebuttal cycle, Dunsmoor cut him off and moved mechanically to the next question on his list. There were no follow-up questions.
Jorgensen engaged in no watchdoggery of "off-track" answers. Amidst a sea of evasion from Rounds, Dunsmoor remained silent and reserved his interruptions for Howie. Consider the EB-5 question. Rounds mentioned EB-5 specifically for maybe the first ten seconds of his response, then went off on a complete tangent about needing to review every federal program. He reverted to his standard rants about ObamaCare and Keystone XL, programs that have nothing to do with the merits of EB-5. Dunsmoor, who has been KELO's EB-5 hawk, made not one peep and let the Governor ramble unleashed away from the question.
But on the next question about Keystone XL, Dunsmoor jumped all over Howie. Our friend Gordon gave a concise answer: he believes the pipeline will be a net gain for the state. He then tried to invoke the "free-flowing" spirit of the conversation with a smart segue: he said we're having trouble passing Keystone XL because we have trouble believing our leaders on the pipeline details. Howie then tried to turn back to Rounds's dismissal of his EB-5 attacks as mere falsehoods. I believe Howie tried to invoke the stunning revelation that Rounds's campaign manager, Rob Skjonsberg, used his government position to send government to a corporation in his investment portfolio. Dunsmoor interrupted Howie and said the question was about Keystone XL.
That moment demonstrated a clear bias on the part of the moderators. Dunsmoor didn't dare interrupt the frontrunner Republican on a clear evasion, but he stopped the Independent Howie from trying to follow the stated format of the program.
In a violation of common debate protocol, KELO gave the candidates a heads-up on the hardest question of the night. As they headed into the first commercial break, Dunsmoor said they'd be asking about EB-5 next. Dunsmoor at least was fair in giving all four candidates a minute or so of prep time for the question, but the point of a debate is to see the candidates thinking on their feet, not giving them time to rehearse their talking points off-camera. Dunsmoor ignored that debate protocol and instead played standard "stay tuned!" showmanship.
Dunsmoor and Jorgensen also chose and framed their questions poorly. The EB-5 question—whether candidates would support the federal-level review called for by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley—avoided prbing for answers to questions about South Dakota's EB-5 program. KELO biased the Keystone XL question by phrasing it in terms of a poll showing 60% of South Dakotans say they support the pipeline. In the biggest journalistic error, Dunsmoor floated a question on restrictions on assault weapons and large magazine. Guns have not floated to the surface as a pressing issue in this Senate campaign. Compared to EB-5, Keystone XL, the Affordable Care Act, or the Farm Bill, gun issues have little impact on South Dakota's daily well-being or our ability to distinguish the candidates' trustworthiness. Yet Dunsmoor wasted precious minutes on this question, crowding out time for more relevant discussion. When Dunsmoor squeezed in that last question about the ACA, he cut candidates off at 30 seconds and allowed no rebuttals.
This forum was better than nothing. We should appreciate KELO for giving up this smidgeon of prime-time ad revenue (although programming against Game 7 of the World Series, how much did KELO really lose?). And Don Jorgensen is cute to look at. But KELO failed to deliver the unique format, journalistic inquiry, and fairness that they promised with this forum.