On Tuesday I was privileged to participate in the Arkansas PBS (formerly AETN) election debates.
It was my first time to be involved with the educational network, which frequently features state journalists in various shows, but most of my journalism career I have been either far away from Conway or working for small weekly newspapers, and it’s usually just the newsies from the big dailies who get invited to be on TV.
Finally, though, after nearly 25 years in the profession, scads of press association accolades from three states and six months of tap dancing lessons, The Big Time finally called my number.
The only problem was, when LaShuan Vaughn called from the network in Conway, she was looking for someone else – literally.
Apparently there used to be someone at The Courier who was a regular on Arkansas PBS, but he is no longer here.
On first try, she got my cohort Sean Ingram on the phone. Sean promptly said “Not it!” and gave her my number.
Having never been on the network and being excessively gullible, I said “Sure, I’ll do it.” It was a case of being the wrong person in the right place.
My co-panelists were a former co-worker, special projects and political editor Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and 40/29 journalist Yuna Lee, who I think served on more than one panel that day.
I hadn’t had the honor of meeting Yuna before, and she was pretty much the opposite of me – young, attractive, charming and well-spoken.
Yuna joined 40/29 News as Sunrise co-anchor and reporter in October 2014. Prior to joining 40/29, Yuna worked as a reporter/anchor at WHIO-TV in Dayton, Ohio.
She enjoys covering the big stories affecting viewers, especially severe weather, crime prevention, and politics, according to the website 4029tv.com.
Yuna also worked as the morning anchor at WHSV-TV in Harrisonburg, Va., where she focused politics.
Since I was wearing socks older than Yuna, we didn’t know any of the same TV folks from Northwest Arkansas, but she was obviously comfortable in the studio.
Doug was a co-worker back in the late 2000s when the Springdale Morning News was still in existence. He was the Morning News’ editorial editor and I was a copy editor. Doug’s wife, Lisa, was the managing editor of the newspaper and was our boss.
Amazingly, the Thompsons have managed to work together all these years without becoming a “Forensic Files” episode.
Doug had been on the debate panels in 2018 and 2016, so he was also an old hand at the TV thing.
The debates were moderated by Steve Barnes, who is basically Arkansas’ Walter Cronkite.
I first met Barnes in the late 1980s, when I was managing editor of The Dumas Clarion down in Desha County – and I hadn’t seen him in person since.
Barnes is the host of “Arkansas Week,” and he has been on the air in the Natural State since 1968 when he started as a copy boy on weekends at KTHV-TV Channel 11 in Little Rock.
Barnes has not only become one of the most recognizable and respected people within Arkansas, but has connected with a national audience through work published in the New York Times, fed to the Reuters news service and shown on networks ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and PBS, according to the website myarkansaspbs.com.
He has been a recipient of the University of Arkansas’ journalist of the year award, as well as receiving first prize for television documentary awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists.
When I arrived at the PBS station (which wasn’t easy since the city of Conway was apparently digging a tunnel to China where the left lane of Donaghey Avenue used to be), I saw Barnes off in a corner studying his notes.
I got taken to the make-up chair, where I had my nose powdered for the first time, ever, then I was led back to a holding pen where I was locked in a room with Yuna and Doug until showtime.
Not long before the show started, Barnes came back into the panelist storage shed and greeted us.
He and I did the coronavirus elbow bump and he introduced himself.
I explained that we’d met once, long ago and we chatted briefly about my former employer, legendary Arkansas journalist Charlotte Schexnayder.
The actual debate went smoothly, minus the fact that when it came time for my introductory close up I had no idea what was going on and I was watching Barnes at the other end of the studio.
The plan was for us panelists to take turns asking questions, two each, and then we listened to the three candidates give their answers.
My main objective for the hour on camera was to neither curse nor pass gas, and I am proud to say I was 100 percent mission accomplished.
Our candidates were the 3rd Congressional District hopefuls and incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, who said nothing really notable other than to throw President Barack Obama’s line about elections having consequences out in reference to the current Supreme Court justice nominee kerfuffle.
Womack’s Democratic challenger Celeste Williams, a nurse, made some good points about health care and otherwise came across as a reasonable, politically moderate and decent person, which of course means she is totally unqualified for Washington.
The Libertarian candidate, Michael Kalagias won the night, in my opinion, when he suggested Womack give up his “Cadillac health care plan” provided by the government and receive his health care from the Veterans Administration.
I never did figure out how to pronounce Michael’s last name, so when I had to question him I just went with “sir.”
It’s pretty much certain that Womack will be re-elected, but he came across as if he were auditioning for a job on Fox News rather than trying to actually connect with his challengers or the audience in any real way.
But I will give him kudos for showing up and honoring the democratic process by participating in the debate. That was more than our alleged senator Tom Cotton was able to manage – he’s too busy trying to look presidential for 2024.
Steve Brawner covered Cotton’s absence in his column, which ran in The Courier on Friday, so if you missed it, give it a read.
Like Womack, Cotton will likely breeze to victory in November, but hopefully voters will start choosing candidates based on character rather than what consonant they put after their name. We’ve elected too many googly-eyed dung sticks from Arkansas based on the alphabet over the years – and I am talking about both Rs and Ds.
Let’s do something different, starting Monday, and vote to send some decent people to Washington for a change.
Meanwhile, I’m waiting for Steven Spielberg to call. I hear he’s looking for the next Indiana Jones.
Randal Seyler is the editor of The Courier and may be reached at 479-968-5252, ext. 239, or email email@example.com.