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Democratic Excess

Media find too many candidates—at only one debate

SOURCE: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Regarding the Democratic contenders, many media outlets and commentators seemed annoyed that the so-called "second-tier" candidates are even bothering to run. Oddly, similar complaints about a surplus of GOP contenders in the first Republican debate were hard to find in the corporate media.
In the wake of the first candidates' debate among the Democratic contenders for the White House (4/26/07), many media outlets and commentators seemed annoyed that the so-called "second-tier" candidates are even bothering to run. Oddly, similar complaints about a surplus of GOP contenders in the first Republican debate (5/3/07) were hard to find in the corporate media.

As FAIR noted recently (4/26/07), early election polls are a terrible way to predict the likely nominee. So using them to determine which candidates are viable and which campaigns are merely a nuisance is unwise. What's more, because the electoral process is about more than who takes office, but is also a chance to debate national priorities and policies, it's healthy to allow as many legitimate candidates as possible a chance to make their case directly to the voters.

That's not the way it's seen by many Washington pundits, though—at least when it comes to Democrats. The Washington Post's David Broder declared (4/27/07) that "six of the eight declared candidates" at the Democrats' debate in South Carolina "showed themselves to be both substantive and direct in their responses." That left two—former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio—who did not measure up to Broder's standards, as they "provided a counterpoint of left-wing ideas that drew rebukes for a lack of seriousness from [Delaware Sen. Joe] Biden and [Illinois Sen. Barack] Obama."

"Left wing" ideas such as Kucinich and Gravel's opposition to the Iraq War are shared by a majority of the U.S. population; it's telling that this is insufficient to make them "serious" for Broder. By contrast, after the Republican debate, the Post reported (5/4/07) that "the three candidates who top most national polls—Giuliani, McCain and Romney—made forceful presentations, but those struggling for attention also generally acquitted themselves well." In response to three of the candidates expressing support for creationism, the Post noted their public support (5/6/07): "But a look at public polling on the issue reveals that the three men aren't far from the mainstream in that belief."

Describing the Democratic debate, the Los Angeles Times argued (4/27/07) that the wide debate format "allowed each candidate a total of 11 minutes to talk—giving Kucinich and Gravel, both of whom have a negligible showing in polls, equal time with the front-runners, which they used to take aggressive hits at [New York Sen. Hillary] Clinton and Obama." At this point, more than half a year before the first actual voters have a chance to weigh in, poll numbers should not be the prime determiner of who gets to participate in a debate; even so, Kucinich and Gravel are in what amounts to a statistical dead heat in many polls with candidates treated more seriously by the corporate media, like Biden and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

While Kucinich and Gravel were asked only eight questions in the April 26 debate, Biden received 11 and Richardson 10—nearly as many as the 12 each answered by "front-runners" Clinton, Obama and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards. This despite the fact Kucinich was tied with Richardson and Biden in the latest Pew poll (4/18-22/07) and actually beat Biden in the latest Fox poll (4/17-18/07).

After the GOP debate, the Los Angeles Times editorialized in favor of the wide debate (5/4/07): "The breadth of small-fries in the field makes it hard to define a coherent Republican message, but that's a sign of intellectual ferment in the troubled GOP. The silver lining for a party on the verge of the wilderness is the need to go 'off message' and entertain a variety of ideas."

CNN's Larry King blurted out (4/26/07) to his panel of political journalists discussing the Democrats: "We were talking around in agreement. I mean, a lot of people were saying, 'Boy, if Dennis Kucinich were 6'2.'" It's unlikely that the media would give Kucinich different treatment if he would only manage to grow a few inches; the disdainful treatment of Kucinich and Gravel seems motivated by their politics.

As CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer complained (4/29/07): "Is it fair to have all these people out there? I mean, it is a free country. Everybody wants to run for president should have that opportunity and does. But clearly, somebody like senator—former Sen. Mike Gravel is not going to be a serious candidate, and yet he gets equal time, and... I would just say it honestly: In my view, it just wastes time."

ABC host George Stephanopoulos sounded a similar note (4/29/07): "Setting aside Mike Gravel, who provided the comic relief, everyone else seemed credible, seemed intelligent, seemed like they knew what they were talking about. That has to bring the front-runners down a bit." CNN's Howard Kurtz seemed annoyed (4/29/07) that Gravel was being paid any attention at all by the media: "He was sort of a bomb thrower on that stage. Why should a network allow somebody with, say, zero chance of becoming president into these debates?"

Expressing precisely the sort of cynicism that turns millions of Americans off the electoral process, Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza responded to Kurtz that money, not popular support, ought to be all that mattered: "The reality is...two candidates raise about $25 million, one candidate raises $100,000 or less. At some point you need to say, this is not us making a subjective decision. This is an objective analysis of what it takes to win a campaign." (NY1, Time Warner's local cable news channel, actually instituted such a debate policy, refusing to hold a debate for the New York Democratic Senate primary because Hillary Clinton's opponent Jonathan Tasini, who had reached 13 percent in the polls, hadn't raised enough money—FAIR Action Alert, 8/4/06.)

Time magazine's Karen Tumulty, though, dissented: "Could I argue that...that same criterion would be used to eliminate Dennis Kucinich, who on the other hand does in fact have a coherent worldview that represents a significant segment of the Democratic party base and, therefore, he should be on the [stage]."

Some pundits made the political argument more explicit. After the debate, MSNBC host Chris Matthews asked Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod (4/26/07): "Do you think that [Obama] was hampered by the fact that you had a radical critique going on of all mainstream Democrats and elected officials by Mike Gravel, and to some extent, by the congressman from Cleveland, that it made your guy seem more like he was part of the establishment than he would like to have seemed?"

Matthews' comment is, in a sense, remarkably honest. Often reporters and pundits act, when they're trying to winnow the field, as if they're only aiming to improve the democratic process (Extra!, 9-10/03). But Matthews' observation makes clear that he is aware that there is a sizeable segment of the population whose opinions are hardly included at all in the national political debate. Whether the subject is withdrawal from Iraq, impeaching Republican officials, or single-payer healthcare, journalists seem to bristle at the thought of having to listen to such talk from the more progressive candidates. It stands as a reminder of how little time such ideas are given in the national media.

By contrast, MSNBC viewers tuning in before the GOP debate could hear network analyst Pat Buchanan declare his fondness for the lesser-known GOP candidates—precisely because they are closer to representing "classic conservatism" than the front-runners. Buchanan singled out representatives Ron Paul (R-Texas), Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

And in an online column, Newsweek's Howard Fineman declared (5/3/07), "Let's hear it for the 'second-' and 'third-' tier presidential candidates.... But if you know, as I do, some of the other, putatively lesser, GOP contenders, you have to be impressed with the depth of their political passion, their knowledge, and even their track records. They represent, in undiluted form, the vivid primary colors of the conservative movement."

The disparity is striking: The lesser-known (and generally more conservative) Republican candidates are cheered for participating in the process, and a cable commentator like Buchanan can use his perch in the media to support those candidates. Progressive voices have no similar presence in the media debate—and the Democratic candidates that most represent progressive ideals are derided for taking up the time of other, more worthy candidates.
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This story was published on May 8, 2007.