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On Bill Good’s dead air tactic

What is the most damning interjection a political debate moderator can make after one of the candidates has spoken?

Dead air.

That’s how it felt to me, at least, as I sat in a car wash this morning listening to the provincial party leaders’ debate facilitated by Bill Good on CKNW.

As in any such debate, a lot of hooey was tossed around by all three candidates. Like when Premier Gordon Campbell bragged that his way of dealing with highest in Canada child poverty rates has been to create jobs – this when B.C. is leading Canada in job losses. Good gave that one a clean pass. Or when Green Party Leader Jane Sterk slammed her two opponents for defending deficit spending. Good pressed Sterk until she admitted her spending goals would mean deficits too.

But for NDP Leader Carole James, Good used a technique that crossed the line into oppositional animosity – ruining, I thought, any claim that Good had fairly moderated this morning's debate. (You can listen to it again here.)

It happened after James defended her “tough on the issues” campaigning, but said she was staying clear of “personal attacks.”

“No personal attacks?” Good asked.

“No,” James replied.

Then commenced many seconds of dead air, punctuated by a clearly audible sigh – or was it a snort? – from Good.

I’m told by journalists who were at the studio that James stared straight ahead during the silence, appearing not to make eye contact with Good, even though he was seated directly across from her. Members of the press gallery, seated on the other side of a soundproof window, rolled their eyes and laughed out loud.

But to a guy trapped in a soap-covered car, the dead air seemed an eternity stretching from whimsical pause to "what’s-wrong-with-my-radio" to "oh-I-get-it, Bill-wants-to-shame-James."

It reminded me of a legendary moment in the 1980s when Jack Webster had NDP politician Svend Robinson on his televised interview show and didn’t like Robinson’s answers regarding the idea of a red light district in Vancouver. Webster turned his back on Robinson and folded his arms, and the footage gets replayed even these days, whenever B.C.’s press corps gathers to give itself awards named after Webster.

Here’s the difference. Webster ran a show premised on the understanding that he would grill his guests. When the debate is three-way, there’s an expectation the moderator will grill evenly, or just leave the grandstanding for another day.

After reading this post, Bill Good sent the following email at 2:48 p.m.:


I’ve had your comments about the silent moment in today's debate passed on to me, and I want to tell you what happened.

I when I said to Ms. James, “No personal attacks,” it was because I was taken aback by her comment. I think the NDP has been very personal in its attacks for years.

So when she said that I struggled, trying to decide whether to come back with a comment or follow up question, or not. Moderating is tricky. I try very hard not to interject, or question any of the candidate the way I would if they were a single guest on the program.

I took a moment or two to think about that, then I leaned over at my computer screen to see who the next caller was, because I couldn’t read the name without doing so. At the time I didn’t realize the reporters in the next room were rolling their eyes or reacting at all. If Ms. James wasn’t making eye contact with me I didn’t notice. Both Mr. Campbell and Ms James, I’m told were very complimentary about the job I did when scrummed after the 90 minutes.

I can assure you there was no intent to grandstand or make a statement with my pause, it was a genuine combination of surprise and hesitation to inject myself into the debate.

Sincerely, Bill Good

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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