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Will TV Drop the Ball on Debate?

Mayor Richard Riordan and challenger Tom Hayden have agreed to debate March 13, and now local television stations have a chance to show they can do more than regurgitate the day’s most frightening crime news.

Century Cable, which is staging the debate, is offering it to all of L.A.'s commercial broadcast stations. The stations can show it live, replay it later, or use sizable segments for their news shows.

Having chronicled local television’s declining interest in politics over the last 20 years or so, I doubt that many of the stations will take up Century’s offer. Local TV has some expert political reporters who feel deeply about the subject. But they’re under the thumb of news directors who believe that gore sells, and I don’t mean the vice president.

Too bad, because the debate will probably be a good show, and an enlightening one.

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It will be Riordan’s toughest political debating challenge.

Los Angeles’ mayor, we all know, is no Bill Clinton, or even Bob Dole.

But in his 1993 campaign debates, Riordan came across as a solid, unassuming man with two simple, appealing themes--"more cops” and “tough enough to turn L.A. around.” Most important, he looked mature, a quality that was more important than charisma to a city traumatized by the 1992 riots. These qualities were most evident in his final debate with challenger Mike Woo, which Riordan won handily.

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Hayden is faster on his feet than Riordan, his speaking skills honed by his many years in the hothouse of liberal movement politics, where the inarticulate perish. His speeches mix hot-button phrases and complicated social analysis. His debating skills show up in the questions and answers after the speech. “A mayor has to be tough,” he said as he cut off a heckler in Studio City on Tuesday night. “And you,” he said, pointing to the woman and smiling, “have to be able to take it.” The audience, siding with Hayden, was amused.

Hayden used this quickness and humor in the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary when he, the underdog, surprised and beat the eventual nominee, Kathleen Brown, and another candidate, John Garamendi, on the debating platform.

The debate will also offer Los Angeles two entirely different visions of how to run the city.

On crime, Riordan wants to continue his police buildup, beef up the department’s antiquated technical support and crack down harder on crimes that make the city look as if it’s going downhill, such as graffiti and coercive panhandling.

Hayden pledges, if elected, to negotiate a gang truce as if he were President Clinton trying to mediate peace in Northern Ireland or the Middle East. He says jobs rather than force offer the only long-range assurance of public safety.

Riordan is enthusiastically pro-growth, favoring the proposed downtown sports arena, the huge Playa Vista development near Marina del Rey and a massive expansion of Los Angeles International Airport. Hayden opposes all of them.

These are some of hottest issues upon which they disagree. There are many others. In a time when cynical reporters and the public complain that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between candidates, we have a clear-cut choice.

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The format makes it easy for commercial stations to pick up the Century Cable show.

It’s only a half-hour long. Riordan and Hayden will deliver short opening and closing statements. Between the statements, moderator Bill Rosendahl will ask the questions and referee the candidates’ exchanges.

Experience tells me what the stations’ objections will be: Riordan is too far ahead to make the race interesting; the subject matter is dull; nobody cares about politics.

Nobody cares because television, America’s prime source of news, doesn’t care.

The stations should agree to carry the debate, and then hype it up as they do with other things.

Give it the O.J. treatment.

Build it up with promos all through the day, as they did with even the most routine days in the Simpson trials. They should hire pundits to analyze the debate. Have the pundits scream at each other, as they do on the Washington discussion shows.

The stations should relentlessly follow up the debate, taking the cameras into Latino, African American, Asian American and white neighborhoods, relentlessly probing the race question. Soon the post-debate news would be hotter than the debate itself.

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Give it enough hype and the public may demand an encore. TV does it for other stories. Why not now, when the city’s most important job is at stake?


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