AP skips W.Va. debate due to media restrictions

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Associated Press decided not to cover the West Virginia gubernatorial debate Tuesday because of restrictions placed on media coverage by its organizers.

The debate's sponsors _ the West Virginia Broadcasters Association and AARP _ barred still photographers and reporters from covering the debate in the same room as the candidates, allowing only video coverage of the event.

The organization said in an advisory it sent to journalists that it would allow only one still photographer before the debate began, but not during the hourlong debate. No reporters were allowed into the theater before or during the debate at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences. The debate was held in a theater that seats up to 200 people invited by the sponsors.

The broadcasters association did not respond to several calls and emails from the AP.

"There is no reason a small pool of reporters and photographers could not be accommodated in the hall during this important event," said AP Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes. "This is the one opportunity the people of West Virginia have to watch the two candidates engage. We need to offer as many perspectives as possible to capture the event and the candidates' positions accurately and with fairness and balance. If organizers of presidential debates can figure out how to do it, the organizers of this debate could, too."

Some other West Virginia newspapers, including The Dominion Post of Morgantown, joined the AP in refusing to cover the debate.

"We were disappointed to learn that organizers denied full media access to Tuesday's gubernatorial debate," said Dominion Post Managing Editor Pam Queen. "We believe the event should have been open to all media and in the Walker Theater, not in a room removed from the actual debate. Additionally, the public should have had access.

"Our stance is that an event with such limitations should not be covered at all. Consequently, we support the decision by The Associated Press to not cover the debate," Queen said.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, faced off against Republican Bill Maloney in the debate, which was broadcast by several television and radio stations across the state. Tomblin defeated Maloney during a special election last year to complete the unexpired term of Joe Manchin, who was elected to the U.S. Senate after longtime Sen. Robert C. Byrd died in office.

The debate did not include the two other candidates who will appear on the ballot. Libertarian Mike Wilson and the Mountain Party's Jesse Johnson each objected to their exclusion, and Johnson filed a complaint Monday with the Federal Election Commission over his rejection.

Tomblin's and Maloney's campaigns each expressed a desire for the third-party candidates to be included and for the debate to be opened to all media.