PHOENIX – The Citizens Clean Elections Commission is looking for a new gubernatorial event partner because Arizona PBS scheduled an interview with Democratic candidate Katie Hobbs without commissioners’ knowledge after Hobbs declined to debate Republican opponent Kari Lake.
Clean Elections, which sponsors statewide and legislative candidate debates that have aired on Arizona PBS, abruptly canceled a Wednesday interview with Lake on Arizona PBS because Arizona PBS had scheduled an equivalent interview with Hobbs without the commission’s knowledge. In a statement on its social media Wednesday, Clean Elections officials said they were “disappointed in the decision.”
— AZ Clean Elections (@AZCCEC) October 12, 2022
According to the Citizens Clean Elections Act of 1998, if a candidate who is opposed in any election is the only candidate willing to debate, that candidate will participate in a 30-minute Q&A session instead of a debate. If more than one candidate is willing to debate, then Clean Elections must hold a debate.
“The Commission and Arizona PBS followed the same process during the 2022 and 2018 primaries, thus today’s announcement broke from our shared practice,” the statement reads.
Hobbs, who oversaw the 2020 elections as Arizona’s secretary of state, and Lake, a former news anchor who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump and contends the 2020 election was stolen from him, are neck-and-neck in recent polls.
Arizona PBS is a member-supported service of Arizona State University, based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Cronkite News is part of the Cronkite School and functions as the news division of Arizona PBS.
Battinto Batts, dean of the Cronkite School, has held strong in the decision, saying it’s in the public interest to present both candidates equally.
“Arizona PBS has offered both Kari Lake and Katie Hobbs a 30-minute interview as candidates for governor, as part of our Horizon news program,” Batts said in a statement on behalf of Arizona PBS. “It is our responsibility as a news agency to provide the public with access to the candidates who are running for office so they can learn more and make informed decisions.”
In a statement to news organizations, ASU President Michael Crow said there was “no policy level decision here at my level regarding the debate.”
“But I did indicate that we need to continue to fulfill our mission of unbiased and nonpartisan coverage of public figures and talk to important people in the public realm like Lake and Hobbs to have the public learn of their views, even if there is no debate,” Crow said.
Going forward, Clean Elections will look for a new gubernatorial event host as quickly as it can.
Tom Collins, executive director of Clean Elections, said he believes in Arizona PBS’s journalism and debate presentation, but the commission is looking for a partner that will “maintain their integrity” and is searching for a new network, venue and moderator.
Although Clean Elections does not have an issue with Arizona PBS scheduling interviews with candidates, he said, there is an issue when an interview with a candidate is booked without the commission’s knowledge.
“The irresponsibility here on the part of Cronkite was that they simply decided they did not need to communicate with us at all,” Collins said. “They’ll have decided to work with a candidate to time this announcement to interfere with a long-standing working agreement.”
Since 1998, Clean Elections has been a publicly funded and nonpartisan organization, and Collins said the commission has to book events to ensure that information about candidates is distributed without partisan influence. He said Clean Elections had a longtime contract with ASU and Arizona PBS that was “inexplicably” breached.
“They breached the very protocols they have followed this election cycle, and they breached the protocols they have followed for every other candidate, without explanation,” Collins said. “That’s not a position we can be with; we cannot be aligned with an agency that has decided to make these inexplicable decisions related to a particular race. It just doesn’t work for us.”
Hobbs has repeatedly refused to participate in an official televised debate, saying that Lake created a “circus” in a June debate on Arizona PBS during the gubernatorial Republican primary. In an interview last week with NBC, Hobbs said she doesn’t want to contribute to a debacle.
“Kari Lake is once again creating chaos and proving she has no interest in a real conversation about the issues facing Arizonans,” Hobbs’s communications director Sarah Robinson said. “In the time it took Lake to put on her press conference full of lies she could have sat down to speak to Arizona voters. But, she didn’t because she doesn’t want to face tough questions and answer for her extreme record.”
Clean Elections canceled the interview, not Lake, who set up a news conference outside the Cronkite School on ASU’s downtown campus Wednesday and denounced Arizona PBS, Hobbs and ASU. Lake called Hobbs a coward who is killing decades of political tradition.
“Katie Hobbs, in her refusal to appear on a debate stage with me, pretty much should have shut down her ability to even make it on the air at this station,” Lake said.
Dave Wells, professor of political science at ASU, said he agrees with Arizona PBS’s intention but understands that Clean Elections has to stay consistent with what the organization has done since its inception. The real loser in this clash is the public, who will not get to hear what the candidates will have to say on a neutral playing field, he said.
“It’s just unfortunate between all the different parties involved that an amenable solution was never reached on this,” Wells said. “Because debates help the public in general by providing a place where a neutral party questions candidates on a neutral playing field and people can really see a little bit of information about how candidates are instead of the way they spin and say stuff on television or in rallies.”
The scheduled Lake interview was the last Clean Elections event with Arizona PBS this election cycle. There is no word on whether the partnership will continue into the next election cycle in two years.
Rep. John Kavanaugh, R-Fountain Hills, announced in a news release Thursday his intent to introduce a bill in the Legislature to cut all state support to Arizona PBS. Kavanaugh said in a news release that the station “undermined the debate process by circumventing the commission’s rules.”
Collins said that although the decision to cancel may be unpopular, he is most concerned about keeping up the nonpartisan reputation of Clean Elections.
“Anyone who has followed the Clean Elections over time knows that our interest is in being as nonpartisan and apolitical as one can possibly be, and that’s really our expectation from our partners, and that wasn’t met here,” Collins said.