With the public still many months away from choosing major-party presidential candidates, robust public debates with a wide sampling from across the political spectrum would seem to be an empowering democratic exercise. And for a press corps so often complaining about the scripted and stilted tedium of day-to-day political campaigning, wide-open debates and a freewheeling exchange of ideas might make for good TV.
But many journalists seem not to agree. In the coverage of the early candidate debates, the media have fallen into a familiar pattern of trying to “weed out” candidates who do not meet the press corps’ ideological preferences (Extra!, 9-10/03). The most vigorous weeding, as usual, has been directed at left-leaning Democrats, but the media outrage when Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Texas) raised questions about the “war on terror” demonstrated that the media’s insistence on ideological orthodoxy is unfortunately bipartisan.
In the wake of the first Democratic candidates’ debate (MSNBC, 4/26/07), many media outlets and commentators seemed annoyed that the so-called “second-tier” candidates were even bothering to run. As FAIR has noted (Extra! Update, 6/07), early election polls are very bad at predicting the eventual nominee, so it’s unwise to use them to determine which candidates are viable front-runners and which campaigns are merely a nuisance.
That’s not the way it’s seen by many Washington pundits, though—at least when it comes to Democrats. The Los Angeles Times argued (4/27/07) that the wide format of one Democrats’ debate “allowed each candidate a total of 11 minutes to talk—giving [Ohio Rep. Dennis] Kucinich and [former Senator of Alaska Mike] 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 [Illinois Sen. Barack] Obama.”
It’s not merely about polling, of course—if that were true, the media would be just as scornful of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson or Sen. Joe Biden (D.-Del.), who both lurk near the bottom in national surveys. The problem is that the press sees some of the lesser candidates as potentially shifting the debate. As Washington Post columnist David Broder lamented (6/7/07):
Broder can take comfort in the fact that this “threatening” rhetoric isn’t actually given much debate time; while Kucinich and Gravel were asked only eight questions in the April 26 debate, “front-runners” Clinton, Obama and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards each received 12. No doubt aware of this disparity, Sen. Chris Dodd’s campaign took the unusual approach of counting up airtime in the June 3 debate. The disparities were more or less in line with the polling—top-tier candidates spoke more than the also-rans, with the debate moderator—CNN’s Wolf Blitzer—logging 13 minutes of time, more than all candidates except Clinton and Obama.
After that debate, CNN’s Howard Kurtz (4/29/07) seemed annoyed media were paying any attention at all to Gravel: “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?”
CBS’s Bob Schieffer lodged a similar complaint (Face the Nation, 4/29/07): “Is it fair to have all these people out there? I mean, it is a free country. Everybody [who] wants to run for president should have that opportunity and does. But clearly, somebody like 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.”
While Schieffer may see an inclusive debate as time wasted, MSNBC host Chris Matthews pinpointed the importance of including “second-tier” candidates when he asked Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod (4/26/07) if he thought his candidate “was hampered” by Gravel and Kucinich’s “radical critique . . . it made your guy seem more like he was part of the establishment than he would like to have seemed?”
Often reporters and pundits act, when they’re trying to winnow the field, as if they’re only aiming to improve the democratic process. But Matthews’ question recognizes that there is a sizable segment of the population whose dissatisfaction with mainstream party politics wouldn’t be included at all in the national debate if it weren’t for the “second tier.”
The initial reaction to lesser-known Republican candidates appearing in debates was quite different. After the GOP debate, the L. A. Times editorialized (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.”
When three of the GOP contenders signaled their doubts about evolution, the Washington Post helpfully noted (5/6/07) that “a look at public polling on the issue reveals that the three men aren’t far from the mainstream in that belief.” 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. . . . 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 contrast was striking: The lesser-known (and generally more conservative) Republican candidates were cheered for participating in the process, while the Democratic candidates who represent more progressive ideals were derided for taking up the time of other, more worthy candidates. And once a candidate is deemed worthy of the “top tier,” they’re more often given a pass on things that might sink a lesser rival. When GOP contender Mitt Romney, for example, made a bizarre claim during a June 5 debate about Saddam Hussein barring weapons inspectors from Iraq prior to the March 2003 invasion, the gaffe was all but invisible in the post-debate press (FAIR Media Advisory, 6/8/07).
But there are still ideological pitfalls for a Republican lesser-known, as Ron Paul discovered during another Republican debate (5/15/07). Paul dared to raise a taboo subject: al Qaeda’s stated reasons for the September 11 attacks. “They attack us because we’ve been over there, we’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years,” Paul said. “We’ve been in the Middle East. . . . Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us?”
GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani responded by saying he’d never heard such an “absurd explanation” for the September 11 attacks, “that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq”—a response that got sustained applause from the audience, and much the same from the press corps.
The media reacted strongly in support of Giuliani. Fox News Channel’s John Gibson scored a twofer (5/17/07) by mangling Paul’s words (“Paul suggested that the U.S. actually had a hand in the terrorist attacks”) and then linking him to the Democratic Party, citing a poll that claims many Democrats “think President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks beforehand. . . . It wouldn’t have stunned me had it come up in the Democratic debate, but it’s a jaw-dropper to see it in the Republican debate.” Time magazine’s Joe Klein (5/17/07) declared it to be Paul’s “singular moment of weirdness,” and stated that Giuliani “reduced Paul to history.”
Lost amidst the media excitement over Giuliani’s response was whether or not Paul was correct. The Nation’s John Nichols wrote a column (5/16/07) pointing out that Paul’s argument more or less echoed the findings of the 9/11 Commission, which noted that Osama bin Laden had called in 1996 for Muslims to drive U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia—whose mission there was largely to support air patrols over Iraq—and that subsequent statements rallied followers to oppose U.S. policy in Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Such discussions are common in academic and policy circles, but not so in the mainstream media.
MSNBC host Chris Matthews declared (5/16/07) that “Ron Paul has a big problem,” saying that while it was important for Americans to “understand the simmering hatred and the hostility, the sea of hostility, over there,” Paul’s comments were unacceptable on factual grounds: “You can’t say it’s because we put troops in Iraq, over the no-fly zone, because they tried to blow up that same building back in ’93, before all these skirmishes over the no-fly zone. You can’t say that particular argument.”
Paul actually made no reference to the no-fly zones in his debate remarks. But if that’s what Matthews thought Paul was referring to, the cable news host should be aware that the no-fly policy was first declared in 1991, and that there was an extensive series of air raids in support of the no-fly zones in January 1993—a month before the 1993 attack.
When Paul convened a press conference on May 24 at the National Press Club featuring former CIA terrorism expert Michael Scheuer, the press ignored the event, although reporters have interviewed Scheurer regularly for several years. The fact that Scheuer essentially agrees with Paul’s premise, as he explained to AntiWar radio (5/18/07), might explain the media’s fickleness.
CNN host Howard Kurtz (5/20/07) slammed Paul’s “unorthodox theory” about the September 11 attacks, declaring that “news organizations are allowing ego-driven fringe candidates to muck up debates among those with an actual shot at the White House.” The real problem isn’t that Ron Paul can’t win the White House, or that progressive candidates might “muck up” a debate; if anything, they’ve started a debate the media don’t want to have.