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Commentary: A debacle of a debate


Last week's U.S. Senate debate, sponsored by Raycom Media and staged in the rented Georges Auditorium at Dillard University, was a disservice to everyone concerned — the students and faculty at Dillard, the serious candidates and the public. Not just because of the inclusion of former KKK leader, neo-Nazi and convicted swindler David Duke, but also because of the exclusion of on-campus voices that will matter long after Duke returns to fleecing haters on the world's fringes.

  Dillard, a prominent historically black university, has educated generations of scholars through the days of segregation, the civil rights movement and today. Duke's appearance on campus Nov. 2, even  for one hour, was an insult, though it could never tarnish Dillard's legacy. Raycom, however, missed a larger chance for civic engagement by holding the debate without an audience.

  The decision to hold a closed debate was made in September, when Raycom first approached Dillard about hosting the debate. At that time, the participating candidates were not yet deter-mined. According to Raycom's rules, the bar for inclusion was achieving 5 percent support or more in a statewide poll. Duke managed that — barely — but only in a Raycom-commissioned poll that showed him at 5.1 percent. That poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, was an outlier; all others showed him at or below 3 percent.

Raycom Media owes Dillard, the candidates and the viewing public an apology

  "Pretty clear polling rigged as Trump would say for ratings," Dillard University President Walter M. Kim-brough tweeted the morning of the debate. "Any protests become part of reality show masquerading as news. #WakeUp." There's no proof that the poll was rigged, but Raycom still should have considered the totally predictable, incendiary repercussions of hosting Louisiana's most infamous white supremacist on one of New Orleans' premier black campuses.

  What began as a peaceful protest soon turned ugly. Duke arrived on campus and tweeted an image of a firebombed black church with the taunting caption, "Hey brotha...watcha doin?" He screamed at debate moderator John Snell of WVUE-TV and spewed anti-Semitic bilge on live national TV, derailing any attempt at honest debate. Raycom, which had barred press as well as students, let C-SPAN broadcast the event, thereby giving Duke an hour of prime-time national television to spread his toxic message and give Louisiana a black eye. Outside, tensions rose so high that some who tried to enter Georges Auditorium forcibly were pushed back by police, then pepper-sprayed — along with some in the media, who were there to document the event.

  The debate itself went so far off the rails that Snell called for closing statements early, with almost 10 minutes left in the hour, forcing him to reopen the debate to fill time. When the debacle finally ended, the other candidates quickly got away from Duke. The last image on TV screens was Duke, alone, gesticulating and yelling to an empty auditorium.

  Raycom Media owes Dillard, the candidates and the viewing public an apology. This "debate" was a breathtakingly ugly spectacle. Given the tenor of this campaign season, that's saying a lot.

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