Debate Planned for Sabbath Is Postponed

By E.J. Kessler

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
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The New York Times is rescheduling an “informal debate” to which it invited the Democratic presidential candidates.

In a May 1 letter obtained by the Forward, Times associate editor John Darnton invited the candidates to participate in the daytime event on Saturday, June 21 — in the middle of the Jewish Sabbath. Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, an observant Jew, would not have been able to participate in the debate as originally scheduled.

But now, the Times told the Forward, it is rescheduling the event.

“Due to scheduling conflicts we have postponed the Democratic candidates’ debate that we had hoped to hold on June 21,” the Times’s director of public relations, Toby Usnik, wrote to the Forward in an e-mail statement on May 9. “We continue to believe that the idea of a debate is a worthwhile public service and so we hope to be able to sponsor one in the future.”

Reached by telephone, Usnik declined further comment. The Times sent out an e-mail letter to at least one campaign with the same wording as the above statement while the Forward was preparing to publish a version of this story on its Web site last Friday. No new date is set in the May 9 letter, which also was obtained by the Forward.

It appears the Times publicized the original date even after ABC News and the South Carolina Democratic Party scheduled a debate of the candidates they held Saturday, May 3 in Columbia, S.C., at 9 p.m. — after the end of the Sabbath — to accommodate Lieberman’s religious observance. It also appears that the Times was attempting to schedule its event for June 21 after New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney wrote a story about Lieberman’s Sabbath observance and the accommodations it necessitated by his campaign, most notably the late start of the debate in South Carolina.

“The South Carolina Democratic Party actually knows about Shabbat, and The New York Times doesn’t?” a Lieberman supporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, asked incredulously.

Others also faulted the Times’s conduct.

“Without being overly critical, it seems to me that the Times should have been more conscious when they originally set the date,” the campaign manager of Reverend Al Sharpton’s presidential bid, Frank Watkins, told the Forward. “To change it to make sure everyone can participate shouldn’t be a problem. The South Carolina debate accommodated Senator Lieberman. It didn’t interfere with the debate. When things can be done to accommodate candidates, especially their religious needs, those putting on events should do everything to accommodate the candidates, in my judgment.”

The original letter from the Times inviting the candidates to participate said that the debate “will kick off a public forum that day on the ‘Theme of the American Presidency.’”

The candidates’ debate — or “panel,” as the letter calls it — was to be held at New School University in Manhattan before an audience of several hundred and would have been taped for a later broadcast on the Discovery Channel. It was to have entailed “a separate questioning of each candidate by a pair of New York Times Washington-based reporters or editors, not direct exchanges between the candidates.” The candidates were to have been given a chance to make opening and closing statements and to reply to issues raised by other panel members. It would have occurred “in the late morning of the 21st, a Saturday,” lasted about two hours, the letter states, and been open to outside media.

Apart from the question of Lieberman’s participation, the Times’s postponement of the debate would seem to be a good public relations move on the part of the “newspaper of record.” Because the Times operates in a metropolitan area with a Jewish population of two million, about a quarter of which observes the Sabbath, the paper would increase public access were it to reschedule the debate to a non-Sabbath date.

In an e-mail message to the Forward on May 9, Lieberman’s spokesman, Jano Cabrera, wrote, “As we apparently have yet to receive it, we have not had an opportunity to review the details of the invitation.”

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