Joe Birch, the veteran anchor for WMC-TV, Action News 5, was, at former mayor Herenton’s request, also to be excluded from participation in the event of a Channel 5 debate between Democratic primary contender Herenton and incumbent congressman Steve Cohen. The agreement called for Birch's co-anchor, Ursula Madden, to moderate such a debate.
The fact of Birch’s exclusion was first revealed by Cohen in a press conference at WREG Sunday night, scheduled during the hour that the July 11th televised encounter, previously agreed to by both candidates, was to have aired. Herenton bowed out of the arrangement months ago, citing what he said was “bias” on the part of Brewer and Sanford.
Subsequent to his pullout from the Channel 3 affair, Herenton had negotiated signed agreements for possible debates with several other TV stations and organizations.
Although Herenton himself would not comment on the matter Monday, calling the whole debate situation “history,” his aide Michael Gray forwarded to the Flyer copies of the proposed debate contract with WMC-TV. A key provision of that agreement, insisted on by Herenton and to be signed by both himself and Cohen, reads as follows:
“I, _________________________, agree to debate on WMC TV on July 11th, 2010. Representatives of WMC TV have agreed to Dr. Herenton’s requests to hold the debate on July 11th, to make the debate 60 minutes, and not to use Joe Birch, Otis Sanford or Norm Brewer as questioners for this debate. I understand the debate potentially will not occur. I further understand the debate details will not be finalized until WMC TV management is able to negotiate an agreement with Congressman Cohen. “
The proposed agreement allowed for a limited form of participation by Birch. As part of the proposed format, it stipulates, “Action News 5 Anchors Joe Birch and Ursula Madden welcome our viewers and set up the debate. Ursula Madden would moderate the debate. “
Birch, who had conducted a widely noted live interview with Herenton in 2009 probing into the then mayor’s on again/off again attitude toward resigning his office, confirmed that his mandatory exclusion from questioning was apparently a condition of Herenton’s participation in a Channel 5 debate. Birch said he was willing to step aside if necessary to facilitate a televised discussion between the two candidates.
Tammy Phillips, assistant news director for WMC-TV, also confirmed that the exclusion of Birch had been insisted on by Herenton. She further revealed that the station had conducted interviews with both candidates last Friday for use in a forthcoming TV special and, in the course of doing so, had once again attempted, without success, to get mutual agreement on a TV debate.
One detail that Herenton apparently insisted on, in addition to the exclusion of Birch, was that both candidates be required to stand during the debate.
At his Sunday night press conference, Cohen took Herenton to task for “quitting” on the Channel 3 debate, as he had quit, the congressman said, on the mayoralty. Quoting Herenton as having said on his withdrawal from the Channel 3 arrangement that Brewer and Sanford should not have “the privilege” of asking him questions, Cohen said it was not a privilege but a duty for a congressman or a congressional aspirant “to answer questions of every citizen and every constituent.”
The congressman, who had declined to consider other debate formats so long as Herenton refused to honor the original Channel 3 debate agreement, was asked if he would have considered other televised debates if Herenton had relented and appeared with him on WREG.
“We’re never going to find that out because the condition precedent didn’t occur,” was the congressman’s lawyerly response.