Democrats cancel CBS debate over strike fears

Times Staff Writer

The Democratic Party pulled the plug Wednesday on a CBS presidential-candidate debate set to be held in Los Angeles on Dec. 10, citing a possible strike by CBS News employees represented by the Writers Guild of America.

The move came after more than a week of back-channel conversations in which CBS labor negotiators sought to persuade the WGA to refrain from picketing the event out of public interest. Worried Democratic Party officials, meanwhile, also tried to pin the union down about its plans.

At one point, the guild appeared willing to consider making a pledge not to demonstrate outside the event, sources said. But with the network unable to extract a firm commitment from the union and the candidates beginning to make plans to campaign elsewhere that day, party officials decided to call off the forum.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney said there were no plans to reschedule.


The CBS debate, the first network news production to be canceled because of the labor troubles roiling the television industry, was a victim of the central role unions play in Democratic politics. The major candidates, eager for labor backing in the upcoming primaries, made it clear they would not cross a picket line to participate in the forum.

Network officials feared the WGA would demonstrate outside the event as part of the ongoing strike involving 10,500 film and television writers.

On top of that, they faced the possibility of a separate strike by more than 500 CBS news writers and other staffers who work for the network’s radio and television operations under a different WGA agreement.

After going 2 1/2 years without a contract, the CBS employees authorized a strike this month.

The union had not yet decided whether to call for a labor stoppage, but the mere prospect alarmed officials.

The WGA blamed CBS for the scrapped debate, saying the situation “could have been avoided entirely if CBS would simply sit down and negotiate a fair contract for its news and entertainment employees.

Instead, CBS chose to make a decision that stifles the democratic process.”

CBS rejected that, saying the union “clearly misrepresents our attempt to have a civil discourse with the guild so that this event of national importance could proceed.”

The debate was not going to be aired on CBS but instead was to be carried by C-SPAN and at least six West Coast CBS affiliates. Still, the live event would have offered moderator Katie Couric a forum in which to demonstrate her political chops as the campaign season swings into full gear.

“There’s disappointment,” said one newsroom staffer. “It was a big thing, and we were all excited to do it.”

If the WGA strike is not resolved soon, the next network that could face a similar problem is ABC.

ABC News is to hold back-to-back Republican and Democratic forums Jan. 5 in New Hampshire.