‘Considering’ a Campaign More Newsworthy Than Conducting One?

The New York Times ran a front-page story (1/11/10) on the race for the Senate seat held by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand that omits mention of the sole Democratic candidate running a serious campaign against her. Jonathan Tasini (who garnered 125,000 votes in a bid for the seat against Hillary Clinton in 2006) declared in June of last year.

But while the paper of record has logged numerous stories on the race–including several, like todayâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s, focusing on people who are “thinking about” challenging Gillibrand (e.g., “Thompson Won’t Rule Out Pursuing U.S. Senate Seat,” 12/19/09)–they have so far completely ignored someone whoâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s actually doing so. Yesterday’s piece, on the possible candidacy of former Tennessee congressmember Harold Ford, begins by stating that Gillibrand’s “allies have elbowed out her would-be Democratic challengers one by one.”

In contrast, Long Island’s Newsday (1/11/10) deems Tasini newsworthy; the paperâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s Dan Janison notes: “Quite a list of supposed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ‘rivals’ in both parties soaked up attention only to punt: Reps. Carolyn McCarthy, Peter King, Steve Israel and Carolyn Maloney; Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; Suffolk Legis. Jon Cooper; Rudy Giuliani; and Caroline Kennedy. So far, only Manhattan labor activist Jonathan Tasini, who declared last June, bothers to run.”

Tasini was lead plaintiff against the New York Times in a lawsuit over writers’ electronic rights that went to the Supreme Court in 2001. But Tasini doesn’t think thatâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s the behind the paper’s avoidance. He even said as much in a letter to Times columnist Clyde Haberman:

We have received scores of complaints from our supporters who are angry about the Times‘ refusal to write about our campaign. A number of them believe that refusal is precisely because I was thelead plaintiff against the New York Times in the landmark electronic rights lawsuit decided by the Supreme Court in 2001 in our favor. Frankly, I doubtthat the lawsuit has much to do with the blackout.

Sadly, it has moreto do with a narrow view of what should be used as a measuring stick byjournalists to bestow on a candidate the blessing of coverage. And, so, while you should be applauded for taking on the Democratic Partyâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s power brokers, I think it is simply a truth that, while complaining about elites and the lack of democracy, the Times is itself closing down the democratic debate.

Haberman’s response was defensive and off-point:

Suggestions from within your political camp that I am affected by your having been the lead plaintiff in that suit against the Times couldn’t be wider of the mark. Until you just mentioned it, I had completely forgotten about that lawsuit. You might want to work harder to hold the conspiracy theorists at bay, at least in regard to me.

But he never addressed Tasini’s actual point: that by deciding to exclude candidates from coverage, the Times is forcing an undemocratic “winnowing” of the field before voters have an opportunity to inform themselves. Such gatekeeping runs counter to the goal of journalism to inform and encourage debate, and is surely part of the reason for the ever-increasing public cynicism about the electoral process.

About Janine Jackson

Program Director and Co-producer of CounterSpin
Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR's magazine, Extra! and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC's Nightline and CNN Headline News, among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW’s Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an M.A. in sociology from the New School for Social Research.