Subs & Substance: Debate Behind-the-Scenes
Last Saturday night, pre-gaming for KEYT-TV’s congressional debate began at 6:30 p.m.
Three miles across town, thousands of Katy Perry fans streamed into the Bowl for her big concert.
At the TV station, meanwhile, a few political aficionados tucked into the Special Order, four-foot long subs from Sam’s To Go, deliciously leaking grease through white butcher paper, which News Director Jim Lemon sliced up on the conference room table.
Determined not to miss the #27 (Avocado, Turkey Bacon & Cheese), Newsmakers, veteran of such affairs, arrived promptly at 6:29 to beat the crowd for the 8 p.m. kickoff.
For the next hour, cast and crew wandered in for chow (alas, the picnic tub of drinks held nothing harder than Diet Coke); candid political chat (who’s a bigger sleaze running for governor – Antonio Villaraigosa for his affair with a TV reporter, or Gavin Newsom for shtupping his best friend’s wife? Discuss) and selection of first-round questions:
Newsmakers claimed Planned Parenthood; Josh Molina wanted the military ban on transgender people; Mike Hodgson of the Santa Maria Times opted for local economic growth and Hector Sanchez Castaneda, the talented UCSB journalist representing KCSB-FM, chose DACA).
There were no injuries.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The last time Newsmakers was privileged to ask questions at a TV debate, during last fall's SB's mayor's race, we noted the difficulty of reporting on the event while serving on the journalist's panel:
Witnessing a debate unfold as a participant on the set, up close and personal, sitting 20 feet from the candidates, is a qualitatively different experience than watching it aired or live streamed on a screen, whether handheld or super-wide.
Beyond the behind-the-scenes turmoil of lights, cameras, time clocks and other technical paraphernalia that is invisible to the audience, a reporter’s active engagement in the debate process also brings into play the basic laws of quantum physics, i.e. the presence of an observer changes the nature of the observed.
So it’s a fool’s errand to try to produce a detached and disinterested debate analysis from that vantage point in the peanut gallery.
So instead of our usual winners and losers wrap-up, we offer these on-the-scene observations:
The draw. At 7:30, Rep. Salud Carbajal, along with Republican rivals Justin Fareed and Michael Woody, stood on KEYT’s outdoor deck, with its spectacular city view, and drew speaking order lots from a Dos Pueblos football helmet. The sports department owns a full collection for prep football segments, and Lemon vetoed a Santa Barbara High model lest it infer support for ex-Dons star Justin.
Smash the patriarchy. Avuncular anchor and master moderator C.J. Ward flew solo Saturday. With neither co-anchor Beth Farnsworth nor star reporter Tracy Lehr, however, this left an all-male reporter panel questioning an all-male candidate lineup. Yikes! #notmetoo.
The Wood Man. Republican businessman Woody, the potential spoiler of a Salud vs. Justin rematch, is a friendly fellow and voracious talker. The first candidate to arrive, he wandered into the press room to shake hands, before repeatedly complaining about the Indy publishing a photo from his long-ago Fresno city council days, when he sported an ‘80s boy band blonde mullet.
Woody, whose striking physical appearance melds Jackson Browne, Werner Erhard and Bruce Jenner at the 1960 Olympics, displayed a facile debate style, delivering clear and complete sentences in the velvety tones of a lounge singer at all-you-can-eat buffet night at a Holiday Inn in Des Moines. His ideas combine textbook Republicanism – cut taxes and regulation - Trumpism – sanctuary state repeal and climate science denial - with libertarianism on social issues.
Justin tries out the nice. Fareed, who risks becoming Santa Barbara’s Harold Stassen with one more election loss, stopped by early to renew acquaintance with reporters, extending an olive branch over past media feuds (specifically expressing regret that the Indy was banned from 2016 election night parties).
He also talked a little football, describing his first UCLA practice carry, when two big beef defenders, who turned out to be the spawn of the famed Brian Bosworth, flattened him. Hmmm: Maybe his current elusive refusal to provide straight answers to direct questions traces to that trauma, so he ducks, feints, cuts, cuts back and runs for the sidelines, mistaking reporters for pursuing linebackers.
The future lies ahead. Salud’s most entertaining moment came right after the debate, when we asked if he’ll vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, should the Dems win the House. Carbajal owes her, but as the GOP has made her Public Enemy Number #1, she's signaled permission to say what they must while campaigning. So he balked four times at the question:
“I’m going to reserve my judgment, then I will vote for the person who will help me best meet the needs of my constituents.” Oy.
Mindful both of his base and conservative North County and SLO voters, Salud offered straight Democratic talking points on political tribal issues, all while preaching bipartisanship. Lest he be caught for an unguarded second, he held a rictus grin while looking straight at the camera, whether the shot was on him or not.
Throughout, he banged a little heavy on the keys, orating as if delivering a national convention speech rather than talking to the 12 of his neighbors without Katy Perry tickets.
A version of this post appears in this week's Santa Barbara Independent.
Images: The draw - Salud, Justin and Michael display their speaking order lots drawn from Dos Pueblos helmet held by Jim Lemon; Josh Molina; Werner Heisenberg (Wikipedia); KEYT News Director Lemon; Michael Erin Woody; Justin Fareed; Salud Carbajal; Katy Perry at the Bowl (Steve Kennedy/Noozhawk).