Division on debates

Network news unit split on sharing forums

George Bush’s debate proposal isn’t just causing a stir in the Al Gore camp, it’s splitting the broadcast network news divisions, too.

Tuesday, Fox News Channel said it would broadcast presidential debates organized by rival networks CNN and NBC, as proposed by GOP contender George W. Bush. While NBC and CNN have agreed to make video feeds of the event simultaneously available to other networks, execs at ABC and CBS said they would not air other networks’ programs.

“We are leaning towards carrying them,” said Marty Ryan, Fox News executive producer, politics. “Whenever the presidential candidates debate for the first time, it’s an important news story. It’s our business to cover important news stories.”

Instead of agreeing to three 90-minute, nationally televised debates in October as proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, Bush has said he would participate in one of those debates. In addition, he has challenged Gore to debate him on a primetime version of NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sept. 12 and CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Oct. 3.

But Gore said earlier this week that he wouldn’t agree to other venues until Bush accepts the debate roster set by the nonpartisan CPD. The commission, host of the major debates of the last three presidential races, is calling for three debates between the two candidates, to be held Oct. 3, Oct. 11 and Oct. 17. Bush has agreed only to the Oct. 17 debate.

The Alphabet, however, is not following Fox’s lead.

“It goes without saying that we will cover the news that these debates may generate, but we will not carry the other networks’ debates themselves,” said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider.

ABC News prexy David Westin had reportedly issued an invitation to both campaigns to debate, but only in addition to the commission debates. Sources also said Tuesday that ABC News has been offered the vice presidential debates, but that no decision has been made yet on whether the Alphabet web will carry them.

News execs inside ABC and CBS vented on Tuesday that CNN and NBC are in danger of being used by the Gore and Bush campaigns. “As journalists, we do not want to inject ourselves into any sort of negotiating that may be going on,” said CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius.

CBS has invited both candidates to appear on a special one-hour edition of “Face the Nation,” and Genelius said she has yet to hear a definitive no from either camp.

Will debates materialize?

As the debate over the debates rages on, some insiders are beginning to believe that neither the NBC nor the CNN debate will happen — at least not until the CPD has worked things out with the candidates. The commission plans to meet with both campaigns this week.

“The Gore campaign has expressed a continuing interest in doing a primetime edition of ‘Meet the Press,’ ” said NBC spokeswoman Barbara Levin. “But they want to settle the question about the commission debates first. That’s certainly their prerogative to do so.”

Levin made it clear, however, that if Gore declines the opportunity to debate, the primetime special will be called off — even if Bush is willing to show up. ” ‘Meet the Press’ offered a debate, not an appearance by one candidate,” said Levin.

The commission, meanwhile, is proceeding with plans for the three debates. CPD executive director Janet Brown was scouting the debate site at the U. of Massachusetts in Boston on Tuesday.

A Bush campaign spokesman said Gore is the one now holding up the debate issue. The spokesman wouldn’t respond directly when asked whether Bush’s position regarding the CPD debates is irrevocable.

Meanwhile, during a news conference Tuesday, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader said he has asked the networks to include him in any debates, but has yet to be promised anything significant.

He repeated his assertion that debates held by the CPD were basically corporate-sponsored events that give free advertising to the two major-party candidates, while locking others out. “We have to break this debate logjam,” Nader said.

The CPD was established partially to ensure that the debates could be seen by the most viewers across as many networks as possible. In one debate in 1992, more than 90 million viewers tuned in. CNN is not available in about 25% of U.S. households.

Some Republicans have charged that while the CPD calls itself non-partisan, in reality it has a liberal slant. In 1992, then-Republican candidate George Herbert Walker Bush hesitated in agreeing to the commission’s roster, citing such concerns.

In response, the commission in 1996 scrapped the use of a panel of various journalists posing questions to the candidates and chose instead to rely on one moderator, PBS’ Jim Lehrer.

‘Oprah’ spotlight

Unrelated to the hubbub over the debates, Gore and Bush have agreed to make separate one-hour live appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s syndicated chat show over the next two weeks, the first time “The Oprah Winfrey Show” would feature presidential candidates.

Gore is scheduled to appear on the daytime show Sept. 11 and Bush on Sept. 19. Both shows will air live on ABC’s local affiliate in Chicago, where the show is taped. The format for the candidates’ appearances is still under discussion at Winfrey’s Harpo Prods.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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