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Back channel?

So why, coincident with his refusal to join in a debate on Idaho Public Television (sponsored by the Idaho Press Club and the League of Women Voters), did Republican gubernatorial candidate C.L. “Butch” Otter agree to a debate with Democratic candidate Jerry Brady on KTVB-TV?

There’s been a lot of discussion about that. There’s the idea that Otter has effectively taken a shot at the Idaho Press Club, but that doesn’t seem right; he’s gotten some bad press this year all right, but the Press Club isn’t responsible for that and he’d be facing journalists at the KTVB event too.

Then there’s the idea, floating as well, that he’s just more comfortable with Boise’s Channel 7; a number of people who have been key long-time staff there have had substantial conservative and Republican associations. That’s not an accusation of skewed journalism, but even if the product is solidly neutral, there may be on a personal level a feeling of greater comfort for Republican politicians.

We were inclined to dismiss that theory too, but the surfacing Wednesday of the Otter-KTVB emails, by rival KBCI-TV does give us pause. Someone apparently leaked a batch of communications (18 faxed pages) between Otter’s campaign and people either at KTVB or associated with its planned debate, written and sent in August and early September.

KBCI noted “The Brady campaign suggests that KTVB and the Otter campaign were engaged in a one-sided negotiation, according to the communication director for the Brady campaign. ‘He (Jerry Brady) is disappointed that his opponent and this particular news station have developed such a cozy relationship. You combine this with his attempts to manipulate the debates and what you have here is insider politics,’ Michael Ames told CBS 2 News.”

After reading the faxes (KBCI posted them on its site at the link above), the matter seems a little less clear-cut. There was some discussion about a KTVB website headline the Otter people found objectionable, and discussion about whether the minor party candidates should appear as well as Otter and Brady, and a few other matters. You don’t get the sense of secret negotiations going on, or of favors secretly handed out. (Otter’s main suggestion, that all five candidates appear, evidently was rejected, peremptorily.) The faxes don’t seem to contain any smoking guns.

At the same time, KTVB and its debate partners would have been well advised to cc: those e-mails to the Brady campaign as they were sent. These ex parte communications open the station to charges that they’re working more with one side than with the other, that the debate might be somehow skewed as a result. (It’s the same reason judges usually disallow ex parte communications.)

Our impression is that nothing nefarious was going on. But a little more openness would have saved some trouble, and defused the suggestion that maybe Otter had reason to feel more comfortable at KTVB than elsewhere.

AMENDED: The reference to conservative associations on the part of KTVB staffers has been changed.

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