Democrats Cancel Debate as CBS Writers' Strike Looms

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

Katie Couric had been looking forward to moderating next month's Democratic debate in Los Angeles, which would have briefly put the anchor at the center of the presidential campaign. But the Democratic Party pulled the plug late yesterday, citing the possibility of a strike by unionized writers at CBS News.

The Writers Guild of America this month authorized a walkout of its members at CBS, which jeopardized the planned Dec. 10 debate because the leading Democratic candidates made clear they would skip the event rather than cross a picket line.

"I think it was a fair decision, in that the candidates needed to make plans," said Paul Friedman, a CBS News senior vice president. "We couldn't get any assurances from the union that if the dispute continued for the next 10 days, the debate would be exempted. There are no hard feelings."

The Democratic National Committee, in a statement, blamed the decision on "the uncertainty created by the ongoing labor dispute."

"Katie is disappointed because she really was up for doing it, but there will be other opportunities," Friedman said. "I'm not entirely sure the public was up for another debate. There have been an awful lot of them. I think the candidates, in their heart of hearts, wanted to be in Iowa anyway." The debate would have been carried only on CBS's West Coast stations and on C-SPAN.

The union expressed regret over the cancellation, but said in a statement that concerns about a potential strike "could have been avoided entirely if CBS would simply sit down and negotiate a fair contract for its news and entertainment employees. Instead, CBS chose to make a decision that stifles the democratic process."

The move capped a day of confusion after WBBM, the CBS station in Chicago, reported that the union had authorized a strike for Dec. 10. Mona Mangan, executive director of the Writers Guild chapter that includes CBS journalists, said that report was false, adding that the negotiating committee that would green-light a walkout has not even met.

The CBS writers have been working without a contract for 2 1/2 years, and there have been no negotiations for the past year. Mangan said the union objected to a two-tiered pay raise proposal that she called "regressive" and "unfeeling."

Mangan said a feeling of "depression" among her members has turned to "anger," but that they "would like to conclude a contract. Nobody wants to go on strike."

After the strike authorization, CBS said its offer was "fair and reasonable, and remains on the table." The company said its proposal includes "one of the best medical plans in the country" and raises of 3 percent for network television and radio staffers, and 2 percent for local radio employees. The union contends that the raises are for 1.5 and 1 percent.

While the recent strike by the guild's Hollywood chapter has forced late-night comedy shows into reruns and threatened the seasons of many entertainment shows, CBS said it would continue to provide news programming if the writers walk out.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company