US Congressman Richard Hanna (R-NY) was seemingly displeased when he learned that a local television station in his district (the NY 22nd) was planning to air a debate he had refused to attend by allowing his challenger, Democrat Dan Lamb, to debate an empty chair.
So what did Hanna do to rectify the situation? He called up Steve Merren, the vice president and general manager of Nextstar Broadcasting and parent the local affiliate WUTR, and threatened to pull all his campaign's ad dollars from the station.
“He indicated to me that we would not be considered for his ad dollars and our level of cooperation in the future could be affected,” wrote Merren an email to other station staff. Inadvertently, however, Merren also sent the email to members of Dan Lamb's campaign.
The email stated: "We are going to have to back out of this taping on Friday and deal with our relationship with Congressman Hanna on our own... However I do not want to offer Dan Lamb a forum to bash Hanna and call him out for an ‘empty chair.’"
It goes on to indicate that the station's decision to pull the debate was made following Merren's discussion with Tim Busch, the Chief Operating Officer of WUTR’s parent company Nexstar Broadcasting Group. Nexstar broadcasting conglomerate based in Irving, Texas and consists of 55 broadcast televisions stations throughout the US.
After WUTR canceled the debate and having seen the email from Merren, the Lamb campaign has now accused Hanna of using is influence as a congressman, and his campaign dollars specifically, to coerce the local station into decisions that would benefit him politically.
“Congressman Richard Hanna should be ashamed of himself for using his money to influence the journalistic decisions of a local news station,” Lamb said in a statement. “If this isn’t a violation of FCC rules it should be. What Hanna did is the moral equivalent of bribing a cop."
"If the news media can be bought off, our entire democracy is at risk," he continued.
"All I have sought to do is provide the public with an opportunity to hear both sides of the debate so that they could base their vote on something other than a 30 second advertisement. Congressman Hanna has repeatedly tried to cover up his record of voting to privatize Medicare and cut college aid for middle class families while voting for a huge new tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. I’ve always believed that you can buy all the ads in the world, but you can’t buy the truth. Now Mr. Hanna is trying to buy that too.”
SUNYIT Professor Steve Schneider told Utica Observer-Dispatch the accusations were troubling.
“I would hope that candidates don’t ever threaten to link ad spending with news coverage or their participation in debates,” Schneider said. “It undermines the integrity of the journalists whose job it is to cover them and it threatens the ability of our press to function effectively.”
For his part, Merren, says the letter does not reflect the tenor of the conversation and denies he felt bullied or coerced by the congressman.
The full email follows (see pdf of original here):
Mike, Robert, Theresa and Dan,
I got an angry call from Richard Hanna yesterday saying that Dan Lamb has intentionally baited him in his press release and that he will not agree to meet with us under this type of setup. He went on to tell me that we were being played by Lamb and the results would not be favorable for his continued abiltiy [sic] to deal with our news organizations.
He sited 7 other NY State Congressional races where the candidates have agreed to 3 or less debates. He told me that his team made their choices of his 6 debates in August and that the League of Women Voters in Utica met with him three times in his office in Utica and were told their request was not considered because it came in almost a month after they had made their decisions.
He indicated to me that we would not be considered for his ad dollars and our level of cooperation in the future could be affected. I have councelled [sic] with Tim Busch and we are going to have to back out of this taping on Friday and deal with our relationship with Congressman Hanna on our own. I regret making this decision so late for WSYR as we jointly announced this last week. However I do not want to offer Dan Lamb a forum to bash Hanna and call him out for an "Empty Chair". I have reached out to Richard to tell him of my decision.
Call me this morning at redacted and we can discuss further. I'm sure we can work through this as we make future pans to work on other projects. Thanks for all you have done to welcome WUTR into your family.
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