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Free Air Time - Seven Chefs and a Souffle

October 6, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Democratic presidential candidates rejected an invitation for a televised free-for-all on the Phil Donahue Show that one campaign said would have been like ″having six or seven master chefs in a kitchen ... trying to make a souffle.″

Donahue said Monday he was disappointed that the candidates would not take advantage of his offer of an unedited, unmoderated confrontation among the Democratic hopefuls.

But there was substantial disagreement among the candidates and Donahue over what killed the proposal of ″an absolutely free forum″ on Donahue’s show.

Donahue said the idea was trounced by rejections from Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and legal objections raised by television stations.

But the campaigns suggested that scheduling problems and Donahue’s refusal to talk about alternate formats caused the trouble.

The 90-minute session was to have been taped today in Washington and then cut into two hour-long Donahue shows, which are syndicated and aired on various stations around the country.

″It invites a free-for-all,″ said Don Foley of the Gephardt campaign. ″It would be like having six or seven master chefs in a kitchen and trying to make a souffle.″

Dukakis press secretary Patricia O’Brien said Donahue was confused, that the Massachusetts governor never rejected Donahue’s invitation. She said that, as far as the campaign was concerned, negotiations over a time and place could continue.

Mike Kopp, a spokesman for Gore, said there were major problems with Donahue’s schedule for taping the show and that Gore wanted to discuss changing the unmoderated format.

Donahue said the candidates seemed nervous about such an uninhibited format.

″We were surprised that people were really uncomfortable with the idea within the community of candidates,″ Donahue said in a telephone interview from the studio in Connecticut where he is taping his regular shows. ″Some of the candidates appear, appear to be afraid of each other.″

He also said campaign aides to Dukakis and Gore conferred before both rejected the offer of the airtime. Both Kopp and Ms. O’Brien denied knowledge of any such contacts.

Donahue said only Jesse Jackson, who will announce his candidacy Saturday, agreed to participate. Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt agreed depending on his schedule, while Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois was undecided.

But problems other than those from the campaigns also stalled the idea.

Television stations that carry the show in New York and Los Angeles told Donahue they would refuse to carry the debate unless all six candidates appeared. Donahue said the stations feared a demand for equal time from any candidate who did not show up.

And that was a problem with even broader legal implications, the talk show host said his lawyers informed him.

The Phil Donahue Show has a specific exemption from that part of section 315 of the Federal Communications Act that is known as the equal time rule. As a ″bona fide news interview″ show, the broadcast is exempt from the federal law that generally requires stations to give all candidates for the same office equal access to the airwaves.

The Federal Communications Commission ruling that granted the exemption to the show includes the specific provision that Donahue maintain control of the conversations that are broadcast, said Steve Fadem, an attorney for Multimedia Entertainment Inc., the show’s producer and distributor. Thus, an unmoderated show might fall outside the FCC exemption, triggering massive requests for equal time from the stations that carry the show.

For Donahue, however, the impact of the rule seemed ridiculous.

″It is crazy that I could put on all the candidates and if I’m not moderating, I could lose my 315 exemption,″ Donahue said.

The unmoderated debate idea is dead for now, Donahue said, but perhaps not forever.

″I would still like to see the two parties’ nominees spend an hour in a room talking to each other in the fall of 1988,″ Donahue said.

Donahue has moderated a candidates’ debate before, most recently in 1984, when he was on stage with the Democratic candidates at Dartmouth College.

Even as the Donahue idea was failing, the Democratic candidates met for a debate in Miami on Monday night - another in the long series of debates and candidate forums which are a major feature of the 1988 campaign.

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