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Political debates enter strange new world during pandemic

Info vies with tech issues for attention in virtual debates for Georgia primaries.

ATLANTA — The screen was a little busy during the 7th Congressional District Republican debate in the Atlanta Press Club's Young-Loudermilk debate series.

"This is new for all of us. Apologies if it’s not as polished," intoned moderator Jim Burress. 

He was one of two questioners who shared a computer screen with eight candidates in 10 different settings.

"We are all participating either from our offices or from our homes," moderator Jeff Hullinger said at the start of the 14th Congressional District GOP debate.

The debate screens were as busy as the audio was, at times, noisy.

"The biggest challenge was with audio," said Donna Lowry, who moderated the Democrats' U.S. Senate debate. "And that’s because we had to keep all the mics hot the entire time. That means they were never off."

In the District 14 debate, the sound of a dog barking seemed to introduce the introduction of the candidates.  

"And every little screech from a chair, every little cough was picked up from those microphones," Lowry said.

The Atlanta Press Club produced nine debates like this over the last three or so days. The organization historically produces debates in a controlled studio setting. The Coronavirus pandemic forced the APC to shift into uncharted territory.

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In the District 7 GOP Congressional debate, candidate Eugene Yu's microphone stayed silent for the first several minutes, until viewers suddenly heard him exclaim in frustration "they can't hear me!"

"Now we can!" responded Burress, to the relief of Yu and the viewers of the debate.

In many ways, the APC debates mimicked virtual meetings now held by businesses and families across the pandemic-stricken landscape -- including the maddening quirks of the hardware driving them.

"Unfortunately I have to go plug in my laptop," announced moderator Rickie Bevington thirty minutes into the Republican debate for congressional district 9.  The visibly embarrassed moderator was undone by a dying battery.

"I’ll now host the show," responded candidate Kellie Weeks,  as Bevington disappeared off-screen for a few seconds.  Weeks' opponents chuckled.

Credit: GPB
Georgia congressional candidate Kellie Weeks in a virtual debate

And what a takeover that could have been. Weeks spoke volumes with just her backdrop, festooned with firearms hanging on a wall. She owns a gun store and is running in one of Georgia's most conservative congressional districts for the seat being vacated by Rep. Doug Collins.

Once the technology and the audience adjusted, the candidates mostly got their chance to say their piece.  

"You need to think about Lincoln at Gettysburg, and not Castro on May Day in Havana, OK?" said Hullinger, imploring brevity of his candidates as they launched into their closing statements. 

"I think for the most part we made it work. We didn’t lose anybody for the hour and a half" of the Democratic Senate debate," Lowry said. "We were able to get through all the technical difficulties. And I think everybody had the chance to get their point across."

11Alive is focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus.  We want to keep you informed about the latest developments while ensuring that we deliver confirmed, factual information. 

We will track the most important coronavirus elements relating to Georgia on this page. Refresh often for new information.


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