Guest commentary

Media’s election failure

Coverage of ‘minor’ candidates: If you blinked, you missed it

By Richard Knee
Posted Dec. 21, 2004

Do you know who Michael Badnarik is? How about Michael Peroutka? David Cobb? Marsha Feinland? Don Grundmann? Leilani Dowell? Jennifer DePalma? Harland Harrison?

All were “minor” party candidates for national or California-wide public office in 2004. And if you blinked while looking for mention of any of them in the mainstream news media, you missed it.

Richard Knee

Editors routinely argue that because “minor” party candidates have virtually no chance of winning, giving them much attention wastes their reporting resources as well as their news space or air time.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy that limits our political choice.

What the media don’t report can be just as important to their readers, viewers or listeners as what they do report.

In this case, they fail year after year to tell us about more than two parties.

Sure, they do the obligatory story on each candidate from the American Independent, Constitution, Green, Libertarian, Peace & Freedom, Reform and other relatively small parties during any given race.

But try to find mention of them in day-to-day coverage; it’ll be a long and virtually fruitless search.

It was a huge mistake for Ralph Nader to run in the 2004 election, but he still deserved fair coverage.

The result has been predictable: Absent true competition, the Republican and Democratic parties have become arrogant and complacent. The Democrats learned the hard way that running on an “anybody but Bush” platform wouldn’t work.

Reese Erlich, a nationally prominent journalist, author and media critic, agrees that the editors’ rationalization is flimsy. "The argument doesn’t hold up in Arcata, where you have a majority of Greens on the city council, or when Green candidates won for board of supervisors in San Francisco. The papers cover the campaign, but they minimize the Green Party affiliation,” he said.

Other “major” countries have parliamentary systems with multiple parties sharing power and receiving plenty of media attention, he noted.

The paucity of coverage that third parties in the U.S. receive from the major media “reflects the need of those in power to marginalize anyone outside the Democratic or Republican Party mainstream,” he said. “They dutifully parrot the views of the ruling elite in the United States, who don’t want third parties to exist. So they made great efforts to make Ralph Nader, for example, look like a left-wing nut case. Even Jesse Jackson was vilified by the New York Times during his 1980s presidential campaigns and by the mainstream of the Democratic Party."

"The exception,” Erlich continued, “is when a wealthy corporate executive decides to make a serious bid. I’m talking about Ross Perot.

"It was a huge mistake for Ralph Nader to run in the 2004 election,” he said, “but he still deserved fair coverage.”

I’ve heard or read numerous complaints that the media let the pollsters decide which candidates are to receive more than a smattering of coverage.

But this ignores the media's role in spotlighting some candidates and ignoring others at the beginning of races, when polls show the public knows little about any of the contestants. If the media gave consistent, thorough, accurate coverage later poll results might be a lot different.

Letting the polls decide coverage also misses the role the Democratic and Republican parties, with their substantial corporate backing, play -- buying huge amounts of space and air time. That’s a luxury small parties can't afford. Their candidates must depend on journalists for the oxygen of publicity.

An independent, uncensored press is considered essential to democracy. But if news organizations fail to inform readers, viewers and listeners of the full range of their political options, democracy is in grave danger.

Richard Knee, a San Francisco-based freelance journalist, is on the GradetheNews.org Community Advisory Board and a registered Green. E-mail him at rak0408@earthlink.net.