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The story behind Channel 12's empty-chair debates about amendments 47 and 49

Kelley Harp and Jon Caldara debate an empty chair in a photo courtesy of Face the State.
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KBDI-TV/Channel 12, in conjunction with Channel 4 and the Rocky Mountain News, has been presenting debates about measures on the November ballot as part of a series entitled Colorado Decides. But viewers of recent shows built around amendments 47 and 49, which are either anti-worker or pro-freedom depending on who's describing them, didn't see much back and forth between supporters and opponents. As noted in "Union Rep Skips Televised Debate," published by Face the State, a political news site with a conservative point of view, Jess Knox, executive director of Protect Colorado's Future, which opposes both amendments, declined to appear because his organization wanted to discuss 47, 49 and a third measure, Amendment 54, on the same program rather than on three different ones. As a result, Kelley Harp and Jon Caldara, who promote 47 and 49, respectively, faced a panel of journalists and host Eric Sondermann alone during separate tapings, with an empty chair standing in for the absent Knox.

What led to these odd TV moments? Wendy Greenwald, a spokeswoman for Protect Colorado's Future, and Dominic Dezzutti, a Channel 12 staffer and host who's serving as the coordinating producer for Colorado Decides, fill in the gaps.

"We felt it was critical for Colorado voters’ education to understand the linkage, the similarities between amendments 47, 49 and 54," Greenwald says. "We felt it would shortchange the voters by not giving them the opportunity to learn how they work together to take away the rights of workers and limit their choices for advocating the kinds of things they need -- the tools and resources to do their jobs. So we told KBDI that we would be happy to do the debate, but we felt that these initiatives needed to be talked about together."

There were several problems with this request from Dezzutti's perspective. For one thing, the station had already changed the taping time from Monday, September 22 to Friday, September 19 to accomodate Protect Colorado's Future, only to have the PCF crew request a combination approach that Thursday -- "24 hours before the taping," by his recollection. In addition, amendments 47, 49 and 54 are each represented by different people -- Harp, Caldara and Tom Lucero -- and as Dezzutti notes, these proponents "don't say the amendments are related."

Moreover, Dezzutti continues, having Harp, Caldara and Lucero on the same show might have made it appear to viewers that they were ganging up on Knox. "Logistically, it wasn't a good idea," he maintains -- and besides, "it really went against the grain of the concept of the series. We pride ourselves in providing a long-form debate on each of these issues."

Given such factors, Dezzutti told the Protect Colorado's Future folks that Channel 12 couldn't accomodate them -- so, Greenwald says, her organization came up with a statement to be read during the shows to explain Knox's absence; click here to see it. Unfortunately, the piece's length created another conflict.

Greenwald says it took her a minute and a half to read the document aloud, while Dezzutti clocked it at a minute longer. Even the shorter of these times is hefty in TV terms, as even Greenwald acknowledges -- but she doesn't consider it to be excessive, especially because she felt that the reporters' panel ran out of questions to ask Harp in the Amendment 47 program. Dezzutti says this wasn't the case; the reporters simply had to dig deeper into their prepared material because Harp's responses were relatively succinct. Just as important, he thought the statement wasn't entirely on point. "There were seven paragraphs," he says, "and only one of them really talked about why they weren't there. I don't believe the other six were relevant to explaining their absence or their point of view. Instead, they went into a lot of different stories..."

Another complication: the statement arrived after the first of two Friday tapings had already gotten underway. So Channel 12 designated a chair to stand in for Knox and tasked Sondermann to make it clear to viewers why no one from PCF was present. During the second show, Sondermann read the one paragraph from the statement that dealt specifically with the reasons Protect Colorado's Future had bowed out. Dezzutti called Greenwald and asked if that would be okay, but he wound up reaching her voicemail.

Greenwald says she didn't interpret the empty chair as a shot at Protect Colorado's Future, and Dezzutti emphasizes that the station didn't intend it that way. "It lets viewers know that we tried to present a balanced program and the other side didn't show up," he says. "There are no hard feelings. There's nothing personal. People have to do what's best for their campaigns."

According to Greenwald, Protect Colorado's Future did just that. Still, there's no doubt their choice will cost them loads of exposure. Dezzutti says that in addition to the programs' original airings this week, the debates will be repeated often during prime time throughout the month of October. Lucky thing the chair was ready for its close-up. -- Michael Roberts

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