On Feb. 10, Undergraduate Student Government presidential and vice-presidential candidates James White and Brigid Kelly discussed their campaign on Platforum, a student-run political talk show broadcasted on Trojan Vision. The tickets of Logan Heley-A.J. Pinto and Andrew Menard-Rini Sampath were also scheduled to participate in the debate, but pulled out at the last minute, citing a potential conflict of interest concerning the moderator, Dan Morgan-Russell.
The tickets were not aware of Morgan-Russell’s position as moderator until Thursday, Feb. 6, vice presidential candidate and Daily Trojan online editor Rini Sampath said. After being told by multiple sources that Morgan-Russell, a sophomore majoring in international relations (global business), was allegedly supporting one of the tickets, both the Heley-Pinto and Menard-Rini campaigns decided to request a new moderator the same day.
“I sent an email to Dan [Morgan-Russell] saying that to ensure fairness, I believe having someone [who is] removed from the voting process moderating the debate would be beneficial for all parties involved in this debate,” Heley said.
Morgan-Russell said that there was not enough time to find and train a replacement host, and gave both tickets his contact information to further discuss the matter.
“Trojan Vision decided to stick to their moderator, and we didn’t feel that was appropriate,” Menard said. “We believe that it is incredibly important to protect the integrity of journalism ethics, and that is having moderators who have a completely clean track record and who are completely unbiased.”
The two tickets did not further communicate with those organizing the event for Trojan Vision until Sunday afternoon, when Heley-Pinto and Menard-Rini informed the station by email that they would not be participating in the debate.
Though Heley and Menard said they only found out about the debate Thursday afternoon, Morgan-Russell said that he had spoken to the candidates over the phone weeks prior to that day.
“We told them over the phone weeks ago what the general format was and we sent the rules document that laid everything out piece-by-piece on Thursday [Feb.6],” Morgan-Russell said. “And it was only then that they brought up the issue that they wanted someone other than me hosting the debate. Before that, there had been no objections from any candidate.”
The two tickets’ apprehension stemmed from rumors circulating about Morgan-Russell’s involvement in campus politics.
“Dan [Morgan-Russell] has spoken out against [USG] before, very publicly,” Heley said. “He’s written [articles] in the Daily Trojan about salaries for USG members and that sort of thing and had a very clear opinion on those issues.”
Morgan-Russell is a former Daily Trojan staff writer and columnist who wrote about USG on two occasions. In the April 22, 2013 issue of the Daily Trojan, Morgan-Russell wrote an editorial in the opinion section titled “USG should focus on student funding.” Morgan-Russell later wrote a news article about salaries for USG officers called “USG salaries established as highest in Pac-12,” which ran on Oct. 9, 2013.
The Menard-Rini campaign also brought up the potential issue of Morgan-Russell’s friendship with Nathaniel Haas, the campaign manager of the White-Kelly ticket and Daily Trojan staff writer and columnist. Morgan-Russell said that as a professional, his friendship would never cloud his judgment. In addition, Haas refuted the claim that there could be potential bias due to his relationship with the Morgan-Russell.
“While I am close friends with Dan [Morgan-Russell], the White-Kelly campaign expected and was glad that as a moderator Dan [Morgan-Russell] displayed the highest degree of professional integrity,” Haas said. “Anyone who watched the debate will see that [Morgan-Russell] asked James [White] and Brigid [Kelly] difficult and thoughtful questions, and we are disappointed that our opponents chose not to engage with us in that discussion.”
Heley said that debates are conducive to any election and that his disagreement with the proposed debate was solely based on alleged bias of the moderator.
“As a journalist and as a candidate in this race, I’m all for having debates,” Heley said. “But I want to make sure that the person moderating the debate and the person in charge of the debate does not have any biases that they carry with them. I want someone who is objective leading those debates and I personally didn’t feel comfortable with the person that was moderating the debate based on what he has previously expressed his opinion publicly on.”
Morgan-Russell said he insisted to the candidates on Feb. 6 that he was qualified to moderate, citing his extensive experience as a debater in high school and his position as executive producer of Trojan Vision’s program Platforum.
“I’m very informed as the head of a debate television [show] here at Trojan Vision,” Morgan-Russell said. “I also have a lot of experience being on air, talking about these kinds of issues and being a host for Platforum. And before that, in high school, I was an accomplished debater, placing fourth in the nation talking about politics.”
Morgan-Russell also responded to Heley’s apprehensions about his active engagement in campus issues.
“The fact that I am involved and cognizant of the issues here at USC and willing to write about them and willing to voice my opinion means that I’m that much more qualified to be the moderator of this kind of debate, because I know what’s going on at USC,” Morgan-Russell said. “Logan Heley mistook my involvement on campus and my involvement as a student for bias.”
Following the departure of the Heley-Pinto and Menard-Rini tickets, Morgan-Russell said he scrambled to conceive a new format focusing on the candidacies of White-Kelly and Faiz Jaspar Abu-Jaber-Harrison James. Presidential write-in candidate Faiz Jaspar Abu-Jaber got into a car accident on the day of the event and did not attend.
Therefore the debate turned into an interview, with Morgan-Russell asking the White-Kelly ticket about their platform as well as the platforms of the other candidates.
White took the opportunity to explain his motivations for running.
“For me, this campaign is particularly important because I don’t fit the traditional mold of what the USC USG president is,” White said. “I am not in a Greek organization, amongst other things. And I’m really just trying to pave a path for those leaders, those amazing leaders, those amazingly capable people that want to be in this position.”
Morgan-Russell also asked the White-Kelly ticket about the feasibility of their opponents’ campaign promises, including Heley-Pinto’s proposed renovation of Lyon Center and Menard-Sampath’s initiative to expand tuition coverage from 18 to 20 units. White stated that he and his running mate could accomplish realistic change, largely because of their access to multiple resources on campus.
After the broadcast, Morgan-Russell formally endorsed the White-Kelly candidacy on his personal Facebook page. Morgan-Russell said that he was not originally planning on publicly endorsing a candidate but his sentiments changed following the departure of the Menard-Rini and Heley-Pinto tickets. Morgan-Russell’s status prompted responses from both campaigns.
When asked about the controversy surrounding Morgan-Russell’s alleged bias on Tuesday, Abu-Jaber said that he was disappointed that not all of the candidates seized the opportunity to discuss their respective platforms.
“Honestly, I just don’t agree with their decision not to go,” Abu-Jaber said. “I think there’s a lot of rhetoric of ‘is it fair, is it not fair,’ but I think the even bigger thing behind it was that both tickets thought it would be something easy to get out of and have a couple hours free. I think that’s what it came down to. And they had this nice excuse that ‘Well, I think [Morgan-Russell] is a friend of James White, so maybe I won’t go.’”
Abu-Jaber also said that he felt content with the format of the debate that was presented as well as Morgan-Russell’s involvement as moderator.
“I felt comfortable [going into it] for a couple of reasons,” Abu-Jaber said. “First of all, I don’t know Dan [Morgan-Russell] super well, so maybe I’m wrong, but [he] seems like a pretty legit person, pretty honorable … If it becomes apparent that he’s extremely biased toward one of the people who’s on stage, it would really hurt his career. So it honestly just wouldn’t make sense for him to make people look bad and call them out, because in the end it would be worse for him than for them.”
Presidential candidate James White agreed with Abu-Jaber’s sentiments, saying that the Trojan Vision debate would have been an outlet for all of the tickets to further their messages to the student body.
“I think it was a missed opportunity and missed airtime for the other candidates,” White said. “The more student organizations that want to take a legitimate part in the election process, the better, because voting turnout is already very low. So participating in the debate would’ve given all the candidates the opportunity to tap into a group of students that they could not reach otherwise. I definitely think a debate with all four candidates would’ve been more beneficial than just a discussion with James White and Brigid Kelly.”
Morgan-Russell has stood by his decision to remain as moderator, saying that the program was intended to help get out the message of the USG candidates.
“As I told the campaigns, the whole idea of this was to educate the electorate,” Morgan-Russell said. “It was to make it so that USC students were better informed on the issues.”
Morgan-Russell also said that he was willing to have the tickets on Trojan Vision in the future.
“If the candidates are looking to come on and talk to us now about USC, USG issues now, after the election, after the inauguration, my door is always open,” Morgan-Russell said.
Olivia Diamond, senior communications director for USG, said the scheduled debate was not affiliated with USG in any way.
“On behalf of USG, the only required events were the meet and greet on Tuesday [Feb. 4] and the presidential and vice-presidential debate on Wednesday [Feb. 5] of last week,” Diamond said. “[The candidates are] also required to attend a couple of mandatory candidate meetings and submit all their paperwork, but as far as any other interviews or stories, or even the Daily Trojan optional supplement, it’s completely up to the candidates, and we let them know that from the beginning, so this debate was not associated or applicable to USG but we encourage all candidates to be cordial, and we encourage them to get their platforms out there because that’s the whole point. We want people to understand why they’re running, and we want that to be in as many different publications and as many different venues as possible.”
Sheridan Watson contributed to this report.