Rules changes kept progressive out of GE’s debate
In a bizarre move the network has yet to explain, NBC rescinded an invitation to Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich to appear in its January 15 debate in Las Vegas. The GE-owned media company went all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court to defend its decision–all the while failing to explain its logic to the public.
The network originally declared a straightforward test for candidates wishing to participate in the debate: A candidate had to finish in at least fourth place in either the New Hampshire primary or Iowa caucuses, or finish among the top four in one of six major national polls. Kucinich met the latter standard, and was sent a letter on January 9 acknowledging that he would be participating in the debate, designed to air candidates’ views before the January 19 Nevada caucuses.
But two days later, NBC political director Chuck Todd notified the Kucinich campaign that there were new rules: Candidates would have to have finished at least third in either Iowa or New Hampshire. The new standard eliminated Kucinich.
Of course, organizers of presidential debates have a right to establish neutral criteria for participation–criteria that should ideally be as inclusive as possible. But NBC has done little to explain why its original criteria suddenly needed to be fixed.
Indeed, Nevada district court Judge Charles Thompson ruled that Kucinich could not be legally barred from the debate, saying that he was a legitimate candidate who was “uninvited under circumstances that appear to be that they just decided to exclude him” (The Nation.com, 1/15/08).
But NBC successfully appealed its case to the state Supreme Court, saying that the revised standards were “in no way designed to exclude any particular candidate based on his or her views,” and were a “good faith editorial choice of a privately owned cable network to limit debate participants based on the status of their campaigns.” (Given that the legal argument involved FCC equal time rules, the network aired the debate only on its MSNBC cable channel, and not on its NBC affiliates in Nevada–thus limiting the actual audience for the debate).
While their argument worked in court, the fact that NBC journalists offered little in the way of a public explanation for their decision is troubling. Why were the original standards for the debate suddenly not good enough? NBC declared that it was merely exercising “journalistic discretion,” but why did that discretion change so quickly?
The obvious answer is that when the previous criteria were set, there were four candidates polling better than Kucinich in the Democratic race. When one of them, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, dropped out of the race, NBC suddenly switched to a standard that only allowed the top three candidates to debate.
Does Kucinich’s campaign represent ideas that offend either NBC managers or their bosses at General Electric? It’s a fair question, given that MSNBC canceled Phil Donahue’s nightly show in early 2003 due to the host’s opposition to the Iraq War; the company worried that the host would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war” (FAIR Press Release, 4/3/03).
Kucinich’s peace platform might be something that a major defense contractor like General Electric would rather not expose to voters on its cable network. Likewise, Kucinich’s strong opposition to nuclear power likely doesn’t sit well with GE, a major player in the industry; the issue was sure to come up in any debate in Nevada, where the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump is intensely controversial.
Indeed, one of the rare challenges from the NBC moderators at the Las Vegas debate came in response to John Edwards’ critical comments about nuclear power. Meet the Press host Tim Russert responded:
It’s also worth noting that NBC–like most other corporate media outlets–has had little time for Kucinich’s campaign from the start, deciding long ago that the candidate was simply not viable (FAIR Media Advisory, 5/8/07). Kucinich’s name has been mentioned only a few times in passing on NBC Nightly News, and Kucinich–unlike six other Democratic candidates–has yet to appear as part of Meet the Press‘ “Meet the Candidates” series.
In a rare case of self-examination from network journalists, Meet the Press host Tim Russert spoke to NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams about the media’s role in marginalizing certain candidates (1/3/08):
Perhaps Russert could examine that behavior now, and explain to NBC viewers and voters why the network has exerted so much effort to marginalize Kucinich’s candidacy.
Please ask NBC to explain why it changed its original debate criteria to exclude Rep. Dennis Kucinich from their January 15 debate. Also, encourage Meet the Press host Tim Russert to be fair to Kucinich and invite him to participate in the “Meet the Candidates” series.
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NBC host Tim Russert via Meet the Press web contact form:
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