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Lake interview canceled after Arizona PBS makes time for Hobbs

Democrat gubernatorial hopeful Katie Hobbs is going to get the interview she wanted on Arizona PBS despite refusing to participate in a debate with Republican Kari Lake.

And the decision by the station could spell the end of the more than two-decade relationship between the station and the Citizens Clean Elections Commission which sponsors candidate debates.

Officials at KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate, confirmed Wednesday they have offered Hobbs 30 minutes of one-on-one time next week with host Ted Simons. Lake, who had been set to be interviewed Wednesday, will get identical time. But not together.

That's exactly what Hobbs demanded after refusing to share a stage with Lake. And that's exactly what the commission refused to give her.

"Our mission is to have debates, not town halls," said Galen Paton, a member of the commission, in voting to reject the consecutive appearances.

The decision by KAET, part of the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, came as a surprise to Tom Collins. He is executive director of the commission which has conducted candidate debates ahead of every election since being created by voters in 1998.

"As a professional matter here, Cronkite's decision making here was unacceptable for an agency like ours that values transparency," Collins said, finding out about the station's decision from reporters and not from the school. And what adds to that, he told Capitol Media Services, is the decision came just hours before the commission-sponsored appearance by Lake on KAET — the one she was offered after Hobbs balked — was set to air Wednesday.

In a prepared statement, a spokesman for Cronkite, which had agreed to give Lake her airtime alone following Hobbs' refusal to debate, defended the decision.

"It is our responsibility as a news agency to provide the public with access to the candidates who are running for office so they can learn more and make informed decisions," the school said.

"Its hysterically funny to me as a former journalist that they're wrapping this up in the First Amendment," Collins responded.

"They had an opportunity to ensure that all voices were heard from," he said of the commission's process and rules about debate. Instead, Collins said, by agreeing at the last minute to the demands by Hobbs for her own time, after refusing to debate, the school "inserted itself into the political process."

Then there's what he said was the schools "professional commitment to us" to abide by commission rules, including the one just reaffirmed by the panel that those who refuse to face-to-face debates do not get to dictate that they get separate time.

"And ethics is about, if nothing else, keeping your word," he said.

"And ethics in government, which is what ASU is, is about transparency," Collins said. "We got neither of those things from the Cronkite school."

Lake also accused the station of making a political decision, calling the move a "betrayal."

"PBS has unilaterally caved to Katie Hobbs' demands and bailed her out from the consequences of her cowardly decision to avoid debating me on stage," Lake said in a prepared statement.

She pointed to the vote by the commission to deny Hobbs her own interview, saying the station went behind the commission's back and agreed to give her what she wanted. And Lake suggested there was a partisan motive for all of that.

"PBS, a supposedly objective taxpayer-funded entity, is working overtime to help elect Katie Hobbs, who needs all the help she can get," the GOP nominee continued. "PBS has now become complicit it Katie Hobbs' attempt to destroy 20 years of gubernatorial debate tradition."

The commission debates are now done for this election cycle. But Collins said that what happened Wednesday will force the commission to have a new conversation with the university ahead of the 2024 election, including whether it is willing to abide with commission rules as it had done for decades before.

"My belief is the Cronkite School does not intend to have a relationship with the Clean Elections Commission forward," he said.

"That is their decision," Collins said. "And if they did not understand that when they made this decision, then they are critically unsophisticated in their thinking."

He acknowledged that nothing in the agreement with Cronkite lets the commission tell KAET who it will or will not interview outside the scope of commission-sponsored debates.

"But the issue is this is a real departure from what was done and an unexplained departure," Collins said.

Lake said she is continuing to push for a debate even though early voting for the Nov. 8 general election already has started.

But now that Hobbs got what she wanted in the first place, without the risks that come with a debate, there is little incentive for her to change her mind.

In refusing to debate, Nicole DeMont, Hobbs' campaign manager, told commissioners that Lake's actions during the GOP primary debate showed she would make the general election debate into a "spectacle." That specifically included Lake's contention that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

"You can't debate a conspiracy theorist," DeMont said. "When she decides to come back to reality, accept the results of our free and fair elections, then we can start to have a real policy debate."

But attorney Tim LaSota, representing Lake, told the commissioners they should not change the rules to protect Hobbs against uncomfortable questions. And he said there was no reason to believe that Simons could not keep the discussion fair, calling Hobbs' excuses for not wanting to debate "a cop out."

Strictly speaking, only candidates that get public funds for their campaigns, administered by the commission, are legally required to participate in the commission-sponsored debates. And both Hobbs and Lake are using private donations.

But the record shows that virtually every gubernatorial candidate, publicly funded or not, has participated.

Still, there is precedent for the commission's decision to give airtime to candidates when their foes refuse to debate.

In 2018, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ken Bennett got an interview after incumbent Doug Ducey refused to participate in a debate ahead of the primary. A Ducey campaign official said that was because Bennett, who had been president of the Senate as well as secretary of state, was a "fringe" candidate.

And just months ago, Democrat Marco Lopez was interviewed by Simons after Hobbs would not debate him for the party's nomination. At that time, however, Hobbs did not seek time of her own.

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