MPT Debate Standards Are Problematic
MPT gets a third of its money from taxpayers. Why do they get to decide who gets in a debate?
Earlier this month it was announced that Maryland Public Television would be hosting a debate on October 12th between the candidates for Governor. The debate would be held in conjunction with The Baltimore Sun and WBAL TV.
The problem of who gets to show up creates complications for what ultimately is a state agency.
A petition created by the campaign of Libertarian Candidate David Lashar1 notes that the qualification standards for the debate are particularly high so as to exclude the non-major candidates:
The arbitrary nature of the decision is revealed by 1) MPT stating its criteria to be a 10 percent threshold in published gubernatorial polls but 2) MPT having made its decision for this debate prior to any such poll having been published. This decision is thereby not only in defiance of MPT's stated policies but also quite possibly in violation of its legal obligations both to abide by predefined standards and to remain non-partisan.
It’s unclear what the threshold is for when the poll has to have been released and when the last date a poll can be released to be included in the October 12 debate.
The fundamental criticism, beyond the ridiculously high threshold, of course, is the fact that there has been no public polling of the gubernatorial race and we are already less than one month from the debate.
But why is Maryland Public Television, a state-funded agency, deciding who gets to participate at all?
What is Maryland Public Television: A television station? A state agency? A community educational resource?
Yes, yes and yes.
Maryland Public Television is an agency of the State of Maryland that exists to provide informational, educational and cultural programming to the citizens of Maryland. MPT is your public television station, bringing you the best that television has to offer, including the best children's programming on television. We are also a producer of programs about Maryland and the region.
More to the point, roughly a third of MPT’s money comes from direct state funding.
MPT has been an independent agency of the State of Maryland since its 1969 establishment. Less than one-third or our budget comes from state money. That means that approximately two-thirds needs to be raised each year to fund the activities of MPT: the programs you see on your television set plus the non-broadcast, educational, outreach, telecommunications, and Internet initiatives that touch the lives of tens of thousands of Marylanders annually.
So you’re trying to tell me that a $30 million a year agency funded with millions in taxpayer dollars gets to decide which candidates qualify for a debate in a publicly funded TV studio broadcasting on TV stations whose licenses are held by a State Commission? And they get to decide that certain candidates that have been certified for the ballot by a different state agency are less worthy than other candidates?
When you get down to it, it’s madness.
As I wrote in The Banner, this is an unprecedented election where voters really don’t know who the candidates are on the stage. Both Dan Cox and Wes Moore represent fringes of their own party, to say nothing of average Marylanders. Marylanders deserve to have all of the candidates on the ballot on the stage.
All that being said, while I think that private sector operators should have all the candidates on the stage, I don’t think you can compel them to do so.2 But when you have a state agency, which is what MPT truly is, deciding who is and is not in a debate that means you have what is tantamount to state interference in the election process.
MPT should reverse course and allow David Lashar, Nancy Wallace, and David Harding into the debates. And if they don’t, maybe MPT should be privatized and no longer be a state agency. No state agency should get to pick winners and losers in an election in the arbitrary and capricious manner in which this debate is being handled.
I know some will make an argument about FCC licenses here, but that’s a much more complex issue.