Time Warner Cable's “Empty Chair” Political Stunt Boosts Tillis Campaign With Phony Debate Scandal

Time Warner Cable News (TWC) orchestrated a phony scandal and boosted Thom Tillis's North Carolina Senate campaign by placing an empty chair for his opponent, Democratic Senator Kay Hagan, at an event it billed as a “debate” -- though it had known for months Hagan would not attend. TWC's stunt resulted in widespread negative media coverage of Hagan and helped amplify GOP attacks on the senator in the midst of a race some experts consider a toss-up.   

In early July, Hagan announced that she would attend three debates in the North Carolina Senate race, but would not participate in a fourth debate Time Warner Cable News (TWC) planned to host on October 21. TWC acknowledged that Hagan had declined the invitation, but moved forward with the program, still billing it as a "debate," and placed an empty chair next to Tillis during his appearance. Tillis' campaign was quick to attack Hagan's decision not to attend, hyping the “empty chair in Kay Hagan's place.”

When the event was initially proposed, it was billed as a debate between Tillis and Hagan and sponsored by TWC and local papers The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. The two papers withdrew “after learning that an empty chair would be placed on the set,” The News & Observer reported. “We wanted to have a serious discussion with Mr. Tillis about the issues without any gimmicks,” News & Observer executive editor John Drescher said, citing an “honest miscommunication” with TWC, “My understanding was that we would tell viewers every 15 minutes that Sen. Hagan had declined our invitation but that we would not have an empty chair.” Both The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer referred to the event as an “appearance on a cable TV news show” by Tillis rather than a “debate.”

TWC's stunt provided the mainstream media a chance to echo the Tillis campaign's criticism. CNN's chief national correspondent John King highlighted Hagan's absence and the empty chair on the October 22 edition of New Day, but didn't note that her absence had been expected for months. King said, “we're waiting for a good explanation from the Hagan campaign, besides she had other things to do.” A CNN article similarly hyped Hagan's absence with the headline: “Hagan absent, Tillis faces off against empty chair,” and quipped “This is not your Clint Eastwood empty chair moment from the 2012 Republican National Convention -- but it's close.” The article highlighted GOP criticism of Hagan's decision, but did note that she “had already declined.”

Right-wing media outlets also seized on TWC's gimmick to attack Hagan. Fox News co-host Ainsley Earhardt claimed on the October 22 edition of Fox & Friends that Hagan “didn't bother to show up” and asked “Why did Kay Hagan bail?” Breitbart ran the story under the headline “Thom Tillis Debates Empty Chair After Kay Hagan Declines Debate Invitation,” and the Washington Free Beacon highlighted her absence, saying “Hagan's empty chair was visible throughout the debate.” The Weekly Standard also hyped Hagan's absence, publishing direct quotes from the Republican research firm America Rising attacking Hagan for not attending the event.

TWC's stunt comes in the wake of accusations of a cozy relationship between Tillis and the telecom company. Last year, a Republican lawmaker in the NC legislature resigned his position as chairman of the Finance Committee, accusing Tillis of governing with a conflict of interest and citing a “business relationship with Time Warner.” Time Warner has also previously donated money to Tillis.