Hey, Networks! It's Debate Night! Play Ball!

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Fox is drawing fire for chosing its Dark Angel over the political process

William Kennard is ticked off. In a scathing op-ed showcased in Tuesday's New York Times, the Federal Communications Commission chair rails against Fox and NBC's decision not to broadcast the first presidential debates. While CBS and ABC will show the 90-minute Bush-Gore slugfest in all its (potentially tedious) glory, the naughtier networks have bowed to the allure of ratings, offering a premiere of James Cameron's slinky "Dark Angel" and the debut game of the baseball playoffs.

Kennard argues that all the networks have a responsibility to televise the debates; he even characterizes the broadcasts as a repayment of debt. And he's right: If not for the beneficence of government (and the networks' skillful lobbying efforts), NBC and Fox might exist in a drastically reduced capacity — or perhaps not at all. The major networks control airwaves that are, ostensibly, public domain. And, as Kennard sees it, that federal largesse demands an effort to give something back (i.e., the debates) every four years.

For their part, Fox and NBC argue they're simply offering viewers a choice between entertainment and politics. Or, put another way, between a leather-clad action heroine and Al Gore in earth tones. And choice is certainly to be encouraged: That's what an election year is all about, after all.

It's an argument with some merit: The American electorate must be trusted to elect a president — so why not trust us to rip our collective gaze from the national pastime to the dry necessity of a debate? But while nobody in America wants to make debate avoidance a federal crime, there is surely something inherently embarrassing about living in a country where two major networks choose to ignore what can safely be called a major political event.

And that choice implies a serious lack of maturity and responsibility: Tonight, we're offered two choices in equal parts: A handful of cavity-causing marshmallows from Fox and NBC or a fistful of vitamin-rich carrot sticks from CBS and ABC. Everyone knows the carrots are better for us, but since the marshmallows happen to be there...