Republican congressional candidates during The Tennessean's May 20 panel

Republican congressional candidates during The Tennessean's May 19 panel

A candidate panel on Thursday night tested The Tennessean’s journalistic standards.

The publication hosted the panel on behalf of its parent company, USA Today, in partnership with Lipscomb University. Editor Michael Anastasi introduced the event, framing it as an extension of The Tennessean’s 2017 Civility Tennessee initiative. Anastasi called the panel an “alternative to destructive and abusive ecosystems of social media, cable television and echo-chamber websites.”

Columnist Cameron Smith moderated the panel. Smith joined the paper in 2021 after a career in the GOP, working for Alabama's then-Sen. Jeff Sessions and two GOP congressmen, Reps. Geoff Davis (KY-4) and Tom Feeney (FL-24). Davis made headlines in 2008 for racist comments about then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Feeney repeatedly found himself in ethics scandals around obscuring his personal wealth and financial connections to lobbyists. After working on the Hill, Smith moved to R Street, a spinoff from the Koch-funded Heartland Institute famous for using the think-tank label to serve corporate agendas, like denying climate change and defending Big Tobacco. From there, Smith moved to the House Republican Policy Committee and Gov. Bill Lee’s transition team, according to his Tennessean bio.

Smith took the lead on moderating, and asked the majority of questions and followups. Lipscomb Associate Dean Michelle Steele accompanied him at the podium, assisting with questions and keeping speakers to time.

Democratic candidates for governor took the stage in the panel’s first session. Carnita Atwater, Jason Martin and JB Smiley focused on guaranteeing a living wage for Tennesseans, addressing the state’s lack of rural health care and protecting public education. Smith asked candidates how they planned to surmount Bill Lee’s 471,243-vote margin of victory in 2018, perhaps the biggest stumper for any statewide Democratic candidate and the entire Tennessee Democratic Party.

After half an hour of Democrats, Smith introduced six Republican Congressional candidates vying for Nashville’s three Congressional districts: Geni Batchelor, Natisha Brooks, Timothy Bruce Lee, Robby Starbuck, Stewart Parks, and Tres Wittum. In his intro, Stewart Parks vowed to introduce articles of impeachment against the Biden administration, which he views as illegitimate. Starbuck used his time on the mic to vaunt his bona fides as a communism watchdog currently on high alert. The state GOP has kept Starbuck off the primary ballot based on residency requirements, a ruling Starbuck is disputing.

Smith struggled to keep candidates within the bounds of truthful or responsible discourse, failing to check misinformation or provide reasonable context for inflammatory statements made by candidates. Discussions about energy independence did not include any mention of climate change, and candidates repeatedly maintained that the 2020 election was stolen by Democrats. Smith asked whether candidates disagreed with President Trump on anything, with the respondents turning the discussion into a contest over who can praise Trump most effusively. During his concluding remarks, Parks categorically accused Democrats of killing infants and animals.

Smith hesitated before jumping in. His brief pushback, “I don’t think that’s true,” did not faze Parks, who continued his remarks. The so-called debate devolved into the same echo-chamber talking points named by Anastasi in his opening remarks.

The panel ended with Democratic candidates for Congress: Odessa Kelly (TN-7), Heidi Campbell (TN-5), Randal Cooper (TN-6) and Clay Faircloth (TN-6). They emphasized working toward a more equitable country, curtailing excessive defense spending, and providing health care access. Smith pushed candidates to name hypothetical spending cuts and explain supply chain shortages.

Incumbents Mark Green (TN-7) and John Rose (TN-6) declined invitations, as did Gov. Bill Lee and former state House Speaker Beth Harwell, who is running this year in TN-5.

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