With third-party candidates being regularly excluded from televised debates this year, Georgia’s Ted Metz has pulled off a rare feat. After initially being frozen out of Atlanta’s WSB-TV’s gubernatorial debate, the Libertarian candidate will now join Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp on November 4th.
How did this happen?
Ted Metz gets an unexpected invitation
When WSB-TV first announced its debate in September the station did not even acknowledge Ted Metz’s candidacy, let alone invite him to take part. The current version of the announcement has since been altered, but the original version (helpfully captured by the Internet Archive) shows the initial intention was for Metz to be excluded.
Following Tuesday’s Atlanta Press Club debate, to which Metz had always been invited, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Political Insider Jolt column confirmed that the Libertarian candidate would be included in the WSB debate as well:
“For those of you who would like to see the next gubernatorial debate feature only the Democratic and Republican candidates, we’ve got disappointing news. Condace Pressley, the director of community affairs for Cox Media Group, confirmed this morning that Libertarian Ted Metz has been invited to the Sunday, Nov. 4 gubernatorial debate on Channel 2 Action News.”
Responding to enquiries from News Growl, Metz confirmed that he was invited to take part on October 11th by WSB Senior Producer Brian Lazaro. Lazaro’s email to Metz, which has been provided to News Growl, thanks him for agreeing to take part, but does not explain why the station changed its mind. Neither Lazaro nor Pressley responded to our requests for an explanation.
With Metz’s inclusion referred to as “disappointing” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (which is owned by the same parent company as WSB-TV) it appears the Atlanta media establishment is not wildly enthusiastic about the Libertarian. This, coupled with silence from WSB, made us wonder if the decision to include Metz may not have been completely voluntary.
Three theories for explaining Ted Metz’s debate inclusion
Ted Metz provided News Growl with two possible explanations for why WSB may have changed their mind.
The first is possible legal intervention by Oliver Hall, counsel to the Libertarian National Committee (LNC), who has been working with candidates excluded from other debates. In a letter sent to Iowa’s KCCI after Jake Porter was denied a place in its debate, Hall cited a Federal Election Commission regulation which says debate staging organizations must use pre-existing criteria for determining inclusion, and that membership in a political party cannot be a reason for including or excluding a candidate. (full letter available here)
In other words, WSB cannot deny a Libertarian candidate a debate invitation just because he is a Libertarian (or include other candidates just because they are Republican or Democrat).
Metz did brief Hall about his exclusion from the WSB debate in an email exchange on October 5th, but Hall confirmed to News Growl that he did not send any legal letters to WSB. He did speculate that perhaps WSB heard about LNC legal efforts regarding other stations.
Metz’s second theory was that WSB was worried about reputational risk. “I have a feeling that [WSB] knew they were in trouble by the volume of calls and emails my supporters sent,” Metz explained.
This may sound unlikely to those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, but Libertarians have gained a reputation in 2018 for fierce lobbying of unsuspecting media outlets. An online poll by New York’s WNOW was so overwhelmed by supporters of Larry Sharpe in September that it provoked a dedicated tweet.
— New York NOW (@NYNOW_PBS) September 28, 2018
WSB has not responded to our requests to explain if either of these theories is correct, but perhaps most likely is a combination of the two: someone at WSB foresaw the legal jeopardy the station could be in, and the organized outrage Metz supporters were making made it seem easier to just invite him.
Why call Ted Metz “disappointing”?
Is there is a general bias against third party candidates in the Georgia media? The decision by Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalists to describe Ted Metz’s invitation to the second debate as “disappointing” makes it seem so. News Growl emailed all three authors of the “Jolt” column: Jim Galloway, Greg Buestein, and Tamar Hallerman. Galloway replied.
“The Jolt is a compilation of separate, yet related items we post on weekday mornings,” Galloway explained.
He then referred us to a quote at the top of the article by academic Aaron Kall, which said, “the format of the debate and inclusion of the third-party Libertarian candidate didn’t allow for the most ideal experience for viewers and undecided voters.”
“That’s what we were referring to when we wrote this,” Galloway continued. “We were informing our readers that, despite what some would prefer to see, debate No. 2 on Nov. 4 will follow roughly the same format.”
No doubt some readers will be disappointed that Metz will appear in the second debate. Likewise, some readers will be disappointed that Democrat Stacey Abrams is included as well. The same could be said for Republican Brian Kemp. We asked Galloway why readers who are uninterested in hearing from Metz deserved a special message in their column but he declined to explain further.
News Growl has been unable to find any other example of a candidate’s inclusion in a debate being similarly described as “disappointing” in previous Political Insider or Jolt columns in the Journal-Constitution. This includes coverage of a debate held in May between five Republican nomination hopefuls for the same office, which was also moderated by Greg Bluestein. One candidate in that debate, Michael Williams, went on to receive far fewer votes than recent polls indicate Metz will receive in November.
We asked Galloway if the inclusion of Williams in the May debate should also be considered disappointing, but he again declined to respond.
We also contacted Aaron Kall from the University of Michigan, quoted at the start of the Jolt column, to explain exactly why the inclusion of a third party candidate made Tuesday’s debate less than ideal. He did not reply.
Disappointed or not, here comes Ted!
Few places can be as intimidating as a televised debate stage during a nationally prominent election. Yet Metz appeared undaunted by the occasion Tuesday night, despite having just recently recovered from cancer surgery. He put up with squabbling opponents, and had a fire alarm go off during one of his answers. His performance got noticed, and even earned him an interview with a celebrity news website.
We asked Metz what voters should expect on November 4th.
“We have arrived at an era wherein half the voters stay at home because they no longer are willing to participate in a democratic process that violates their morality and right of conscience.
“For the next debate, I am not going to try to filter my responses to pick and choose words. Viewers can expect rapid fire, heady responses.”
But Metz did cite one change he wants made:
“We’ll see if we can have the Atlanta Fire Department check the alarm system before this debate to cut down on the distractions.”
News Growl invited the campaigns of Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp to contribute to this article, specifically to say whether or not they also considered Ted Metz being in the second debate “disappointing.” Neither campaign replied.
Patricia McConnell also contributed to this article.