An Arizona Republic reporter was removed as a moderator from Wednesday's debate among Republican candidates for governor after the Kari Lake campaign complained about the reporter's participation.
Arizona PBS, which is broadcasting the debate on Channel 8 at 5 p.m., notified The Republic late Wednesday morning that political reporter Stacey Barchenger would no longer serve as a co-moderator with "Arizona Horizon" host Ted Simons.
Gina Roberts, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission's voter education director, said in a statement that the debate was originally set up with one moderator, Simons.
Only on Tuesday, less than 24 hours before the debate was to be taped, were the four candidates' campaigns notified that Barchenger would be joining Simons.
"In the interest of fairness, we decided to adhere to the original agreement," Roberts wrote. In response to a question, Roberts said the commission only learned Tuesday that Barchenger would be sharing moderator duties.
It is unclear if the decision to remove Barchenger was made by both PBS and the commission. Arizona PBS did not respond to a request for additional information.
Sam Stone, policy director for Lake's campaign, said they learned of Barchenger's role as a co-moderator Tuesday and lodged their objection. However, there was never a threat to back out of the debate, he said.
“Stacey has clearly developed a fairly adversarial relationship with Kari," Stone said, referring to coverage of Lake's campaign.
Greg Burton, The Republic's executive editor, said, "Stacey's coverage of the campaign is above reproach. She is a tremendous reporter who asks the tough questions about issues that voters need to know about. These are normal campaign tactics that news organizations stand firm against every election season."
Barchenger, an award-winning reporter who joined The Republic in 2021, reports on the Governor's Office and the race for governor. Barchenger's work has included a profile of Lake's campaign and several stories about Lake's candidacy, from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey chastising Lake for criticism of his border policy to her spat with a drag queen.
Lake has repeatedly responded to questions about her campaign by attacking reporters and news outlets despite the candidate's long tenure in TV news. The campaign also has pictured Barchenger in its advertising.
While they were clear in their complaint, Stone said Lake's participation was not conditional on removing Barchenger.
"Kari was always going to participate," Stone said. "She's very excited for this debate."
The four candidates met in a debate that aired at 5 p.m. on PBS Channel 8. The debate featured Republicans Karrin Taylor Robson, Scott Neely and Paola Tulliani-Zen, in addition to Lake.
Emails from the debate's host, the Arizona Clean Elections Commission, show the candidates were informed of Barchenger's participation Tuesday afternoon. An earlier email with debate details, sent June 23, mentioned Simons as the moderator, although Arizona PBS and The Republic arranged Barchenger's participation in April.
The Clean Elections Commission also did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the last-minute change in debate plans.
A journalism ethics expert said there are no hard and fast rules about candidate debates, but the choice of moderators is usually part of negotiations between candidate campaigns and the debate host.
For example, the Commission on Presidential Debates selects moderators, but the candidates can veto those choices, said Kelly McBride, senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute.
McBride said there were too many unanswered questions about the governor's race debate details for her to make a call on the removal of a moderator. For example, why weren't the candidates notified well in advance about the moderators, she asked.
Candidates need some lead time, she said. "These people have to prepare."
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: PBS removes Republic moderator from debate after Kari Lake objection