More evidence has emerged that Iowa’s top elected official, Governor Kim Reynolds, has pressured the state’s top media to exclude an opponent from three upcoming televised debates.

The debate hosts, which include some of the most well-respected media in Iowa, are either complying with the governor’s demands, or failing to fully explain their decision-making processes.

Gov Kim Reynolds decides who debates

In previous coverage News Growl shared a tweet from Michelle Gajewski, campaign manager for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell. Gajewski clearly references attempts by the Reynolds campaign to exclude Libertarian candidate Jake Porter from any televised debates.

Strong evidence to corroborate Gajewski’s tweet has since emerged.

On September 5th, during a public disagreement between the Reynolds and Hubbell campaigns about which debates had been agreed, Eastern Iowa’s KWWL wrongly stated online that all three candidates would be taking part in its October 17th debate. The station’s website said, “The debate includes the three major candidates for governor, Republican Kim Reynolds, Democrat Fred Hubbell and Libertarian Jake Porter.”

Soon after this statement was issued, the following correction appeared:

“—Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included Libertarian nominee Jake Porter as being part of the debate. That is incorrect. The writer intended to note that candidate Hubbell has indicated he wants Jake Porter to participate. The Reynolds campaign has only agreed to a Reynolds-Hubbell debate.”

Curiously, this correction has since been removed from the KWWL website. A snapshot of the page with the correction was preserved for the record by the Internet Archive, however. Speaking to News Growl, KWWL News Director Alison Gibson says the erasure was a result of website and app updates made in late September and was not intentional.

Removed or not, the implication is clear. Kim Reynolds would only agree to debate Fred Hubbell, and would not agree to a debate that included Jake Porter.

Should elected officials control debates?

By refusing to participate in debates that include Porter, Kim Reynolds is effectively denying him access to one of the most important public platforms available to candidates. She is also denying thee million Iowans the chance to learn more about one of the three major-party candidates on the ballot.

Demanding concessions from debate organizers is common practice for many campaigns, but with Kim Reynolds the situation is somewhat different. She is the top elected official in the state. Her leverage over debate organizers extends directly from the office she holds. No one will want to host a gubernatorial debate without the sitting governor taking part, and she knows it.

Thanks to its results from the 2016 election, the Libertarian Party is a legally recognized major party in Iowa for the first time in its history. It is now meant to be on an equal footing with the Democrats and Republicans. By exercizing what is in effect a veto over who takes part in debates, Reynolds is at best violating the spirit of Iowa electoral law.

A sitting governor trying to control which parties get debate access is worrying. Even more worrying, parts of Iowa’s fourth estate may be be enabling the governor to control the news they cover.

Muddled explanations from KCCI and the Register

While the KWWL correction effectively admits Governor Reynolds’ part in their debate inclusion process, other media are being less transparent. The criteria used by KCCI and the Des Moines Register for their debate tomorrow is especially problematic.

Who made the decision?

KCCI and the Register have so far offered only incomplete, somewhat muddled explanations for their decision to exclude Porter.

KCCI has repeatedly cited its “journalistic judgement” as the basis for its decision, saying in a letter to Porter “we selected the candidates our news department judged to be the most newsworthy to include.” (full letter available here)

Very few journalists from the KCCI news department appear to have been allowed to contribute to the station’s “journalistic judgement,” however.

Responding to a News Growl email, one member of the KCCI news team wrote, “I have absolutely nothing to do with the debate selection process.”

Steve Karlin, who is actually co-moderating the debate alongside the Register‘s Kathie Obradovich, told us, “Our management decides who is included in the debates we air on KCCI.”

Four other members of the KCCI news team also declined to comment on the selection process, instead referring us to management.

Even though she is not a member of the KCCI news department, Register Executive Editor, Carol Hunter told News Growl that she was involved in the decision. In an email she told us, “That was a joint decision made by the Register and KCCI, and I represented the Register in those discussions.”

Hunter did not reply to our requests to elaborate. When we asked co-moderator Kathie Obradovich to comment she only referred us back to Hunter.

It is not surprising that both KCCI and Register management were involved in the deciding who to include, but it is surprising that neither organization is willing to clarify who exactly took part in the “journalistic judgement.”

Using which criteria?

KCCI has also failed to disclose the full list of criteria used to make its “journalistic judgement.” In both public and private statements KCCI management have referred to other, unnamed criteria. Repeated requests to publish the unnamed criteria have been ignored.

But at least KCCI has been willing to comment. Speaking for the Register, Carol Hunter would only say that as News Growl had already spoke to KCCI she felt there was no need to comment further.

Inconsistent criteria from KWQC

Questionable as the policies of KCCI, the Register, and KWWL are, it is Davenport-based KWQC that perhaps has the most implausible explanation for excluding Porter.

When KWQC decided to invite only Kim Reynolds and Fred Hubbell to their debate, they published the following statement:

The criteria for an invitation to debate includes candidates who have raised a minimum of $250,000 and/or show at least 10% voter support statewide in the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Poll, conducted by Selzer and Co. before the scheduled debate. At this time, Reynolds and Hubbell are the only two candidates meeting that criteria.

This all looks above-board and transparent. The only problem is, KWQC has never used these critera, or any similar criteria, for previous debates.

For example, as recently as May 13th of this year KWQC hosted a six-way debate for the Democratic gubernatorial primary that included several candidates more marginal than Jake Porter. Three of the candidates present (Andy McGuire, John Norris, and Ross Wilburn) never exceeded 5% support in any poll before or after the debate. Ross Wilburn raised only $8,624.82 in total for his entire campaign – nearly 30 times less than what KWQC are demanding Porter have raised to be considered.

It is reasonable that KWQC might employ different standards for primary debates than general election debates, but the disparity in this case is stark. News Growl twice asked KWQC management to explain the inconsistency, but received no reply.

The three-way that got away

Iowa Public Television, normally a main player in the staging of statewide televised debates in Iowa, is not participating in this year’s gubernatorial debate schedule.

This is not because IPTV did not want to host a debate in 2018 (as it had done in 2014 and 2010). Speaking to News Growl, IPTV Director of Communications Susan Ramsey said, “We hoped to provide our statewide audience with a Gubernatorial general election debate this year.”

According to Ramsey, the candidates chose not to confirm the IPTV offer.

If there had been an IPTV debate, however, we know that Porter would have been included. “IPTV does not have conditions, we have criteria. Any candidate who meets our criteria may participate in a debate,” Ramsey explained.

Porter did meet IPTV’s published debate criteria (at least $50,000 in contributions and at least 5% standing in the polls), but by the time he had met these targets the Hubbell and Reynolds campaigns had already agreed debates with other stations.

With only Porter willing to take part in the debate, IPTV could not accommodate him. “It does take more than one candidate to make a debate,” Ramsey told us.

We do not know why the Reynolds campaign declined the IPTV invitation, but the governor may have been wary of the station’s inclusion policy. IPTV’s transparent, more reasonable standards would have allowed Porter into its debate over any objections from the Reynolds campaign. By not agreeing to the IPTV offer, the risk of appearing on stage with the Libertarian was avoided.

Kim Reynolds: putting the media in a bind

Other than the now-erased admission from KWWL, there is no direct proof that Iowa media excluded Jake Porter from its debates thanks to pressure from Kim Reynolds. But we do know that such pressure existed, and we do know that the explanations KCCI, KWQL, and the Des Moines Register have supplied raise serious questions.

Any gubernatorial debate that does not include a sitting governor is, by definition, undesirable. In a straight choice between Kim Reynolds and Libertarian Jake Porter (currently polling at 7%) there is an argument to be made that the public interest is served more by hearing from Reynolds than Porter.

But if Iowa media are going to succumb to this argument, they have a duty to their viewers and readers to be transparent about it.

And Iowa voters have the right to question whether their governor is acting appropriately by forcing such a choice in the first place.

As it stands, the actions of KCCI, the Register, KWWL, and KWQC appear to be violating several points of the most widely-respected industry ethics standard, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, including:

Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.

Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.

Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.

Spare a thought for Karlin and Obradovich

Tomorrow night’s first televised debate will be moderated by Steve Karlin and Kathie Obradovich. As two of Iowa’s most respected journalists, they are being put in an impossible position.

According to KCCI, the debate is “‘on the spot’ coverage of a bona fide news event,” informed by their “journalistic judgement.” But the journalist who will actually be “on the spot” to report the news event for KCCI, Steve Karlin, himself admits he has been frozen out of the journalistic judgement process that has defined the debate in the first place.

At least KCCI is talking. Kathie Obradovich is in exactly the same position, but her executive editor will provide no independent explanation.

Now that reasonable questions about the integrity of the debate exist, it is surprising that Karlin and Obradovich are remaining silent on the issue of Porter’s exclusion. News Growl has asked each three times to comment on the issue, but received no reply other than invitations to speak to their respective management.

A news event that is being significantly influenced by one of its subjects could rightly be called “fake news.” On this basis, tomorrow night’s debate may be Iowa’s first ever “fake debate.”

Kim Reynolds was invited to contribute to this report but we received no response to our enquiries.

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