Wednesday night's U.S. Senate debate, sponsored by the TV company 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 most of all the voting public. Not just because of the inclusion of former Ku Klux Klansman, neo-Nazi, white supremacist and convicted swindler David Duke, but also because of the exclusion
of the on-campus voices that have been there, and will continue to be there long after Duke goes back to peddling his venom and fleecing his bigoted followers on a less public stage.
Dillard, of course, is a historically black university and has been since Straight University and New Orleans University merged in the 1930s to form Dillard. It has educated generations of scholars through the days of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement until today. The appearance of a professional bigot on campus for one hour is an embarrassment, but does nothing to threaten Dillard’s legacy. However, Raycom 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 renting Georges Auditorium for the debate. At that time, the candidates who would be invited to participate were yet to be determined. According to Raycom’s rules, the bar for inclusion was achieving 5 percent or greater in a statewide poll. Duke managed that — barely — in a Raycom-commissioned poll that showed him at 5.1 percent (with a +/- 4 percent margin of error). That poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for Raycom, was an outlier; most others showed him at around 3 percent.
“Pretty clear polling rigged as Trump would say for ratings,” Dillard University President Walter M. Kimbrough tweeted the morning of the debate. “Any protests become part of reality show masquerading as news. #WakeUp.” There’s no proof of that, but Raycom would have made a lot more friends on and off campus had it reconsidered the incendiary nature of hosting Louisiana’s most famous white supremacist on one of New Orleans’ premier black campuses.
No wonder, then, that what began as a peaceful protest 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 TV, derailing any attempt at discussion.
Raycom, which had barred press as well as students, nevertheless chose to let C-SPAN broadcast the event, which gave Duke an hour of prime-time national television to spread his toxic message and give the whole state a black eye. Outside, meanwhile, tensions rose so high that some in the crowd tried to get into Georges Auditorium and were pushed back by police. Some protesters were pepper-sprayed, along with some in the media as they tried to document what was going on.
The debate itself went so far off the rails that Snell called for closing statements early, leaving almost 10 minutes left in the hour and forcing him to reopen
the debate to fill time. When the debacle finally ended, the other candidates scattered to get away from Duke. The last image on TV screens was Duke alone behind his podium, gesticulating and yelling into a microphone to an empty auditorium.
Raycom Media owes Dillard, the candidates and the viewing public an apology. Their travesty of a “debate” was a breathtakingly ugly spectacle. Given the tenor of this campaign season, that’s saying a lot.