Like most members of Kentucky's congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, refused to face his challenger for a live statewide debate arranged by Kentucky Educational Television.
Unlike the other incumbents, who simply didn't show up, Whitfield and his attorneys demanded that KET on Monday air an unedited videotaped statement that he submitted, to run after Democratic challenger Heather Ryan of Paducah took half an hour of questions from journalists.
After checking with its own attorney, KET agreed to Whitfield's demand, saying the law left it no choice.
"Under the 'equal-opportunities' requirements of Section 315 of the Communications Act and the Federal Communications Commission's rules, KET is obliged to provide equal time by broadcasting the recorded statement," KET Deputy Executive Director Shae Hopkins said in a prepared statement.
Ryan said she was shocked to discover just hours before her scheduled appearance that KET would allow the congressman to skip the live debate, but still get televised time to say things she could not respond to.
"This completely changes the dynamics of everything KET and its debates are supposed to be about," Ryan said. "Why would any incumbent ever agree to a debate if all you have to do is skip the questions and the rebuttals and just submit a campaign commercial, which KET will broadcast for free?"
Ken Kurtz, a retired news director at WKYT in Lexington and a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, said KET's explanation is ridiculous, and the station has embarrassed itself.
KET offered Whitfield free television time during the debate, and he — not KET — made the decision not to appear, Kurtz said. KET is not under an obligation to provide the congressman with his favorite kind of air time, Kurtz said.
Kurtz said politicians occasionally tried this argument with him when he was a news director, but a journalist with integrity and courage "says 'Hell no,'" he said.
"What KET is doing now is not a debate. They listed it as a debate, but this is a challenger taking questions from reporters for half an hour followed by an incumbent getting to promote himself as he chooses in a videotaped commercial," Kurtz said. "It's not fair to the citizens of that congressional district and it's an abdication of their journalistic responsibility."
But Todd Gray, KET's attorney, disagreed with Kurtz's assessment. FCC law does allow Whitfield to skip a televised debate and then demand his own chance to respond, Gray said. As far as the FCC is concerned, a one-candidate debate is unfair regardless of who decided to make it that way, he said.
"My sense is that, quite frankly, this was something that KET had never encountered before now," Gray said.
Whitfield could not be reached for comment Monday. His congressional offices closed for Columbus Day and nobody answered the phone at his campaign office. A campaign spokesman did not return calls to his cell phone.
Until now, candidates who refused to attend KET debates did not appear on the air in any manner and were only briefly mentioned by the moderator at the start of the show.
Monday's KET appearance was going to be the only debate this year between Whitfield and Ryan, since Whitfield has skipped all other joint appearances, Ryan said. The network's decision is disappointing and undermines its public-service mission, she said.
"I drove six hours with two kids from Paducah (to the KET studios in Lexington) to answer questions for the people of Kentucky because I thought this was important. Ed Whitfield couldn't make the time?" she asked.
Whitfield, first elected in 1994, represents the 1st Congressional District of far Western Kentucky. The election is Nov. 4.