There is a heated debate among Democrats about the direction of the party, with centrist politicians facing challenges from the left, particularly on the Iraq War. But New York voters had a difficult time seeing this debate play out, with New York City cable news channel NY1 (owned by Time Warner) blocking challenger Jonathan Tasini from a Democratic primary race debate against incumbent Sen. Hillary Clinton.
As an antiwar candidate challenging Clinton’s pro-war record, Tasini (a one-time contributor to Extra!—Summer/90) would appear to have offered something that Democratic voters say they want: A Zogby poll (8/9/06) showed that 78 percent of Democrats want candidates who oppose the Iraq War. By shutting Tasini out of the debate, NY1 hampered discussion of this central issue and ultimately limited voter choice.
Before being invited to an NY1-sponsored debate, a candidate is required to not only have at least 5 percent support in public opinion polls, but also to have spent and/or raised $500,000 (Village Voice, 8/2/06). Tasini had more than enough popular support—polling 13 percent in one Marist poll (7/19/06)—but his campaign had only raised $150,000. (Without the exposure of a debate, Tasini eventually won 17 percent of the vote in the September 12 primary.)
NY1’s criteria simply spell out the undemocratic standards media outlets often use to measure the seriousness of a candidacy. Setting any sort of fundraising requirement for participation in a debate is anti-democratic, akin to a poll tax or a property qualification for voting. The League of Women Voters, which is the main sponsor for local and national debates, requires only that a participant in a debate collect the 15,000 signatures required by law to be on the ballot. In this case, Tasini received 40,000 signatures, placing him well over that mark.
When a FAIR Action Alert (8/4/06) called on NY1 to allow Tasini into a debate, the channel’s general manager, Steve Paulus, responded (FAIR Activism Update, 8/23/06): “NY1 has not disqualified Jonathan Tasini from any debate because there is no debate. Hillary Clinton will not agree to a debate with anyone so there is no debate to be held.” This is exactly backward—Clinton can’t agree or not agree to a debate that isn’t being held. It’s NY1’s decision whether to hold a debate—and the channel decided not to, because Tasini didn’t have enough money.
In terms of Tasini’s financial situation, Paulus noted, “There are 5.5 million registered Democrats in New York State. If one-tenth of them (one out of ten registered Democrats) sent him $1 he would have raised $550,000.” Paulus is surely aware that candidates do not generally raise money in one-dollar increments; the PAC of his own employer, Time Warner, has given Clinton $5,000 in this election cycle alone, while Time Warner employees have pitched in at least another $98,000 in chunks of $200 or more (OpenSecrets.org). At that rate, you would only need a handful of similarly generous companies to reach the threshold set by Time Warner's subsidiary—but neither Time Warner nor Rupert Murdoch, another corporate fundraiser for Clinton, is likely to direct any of their wealth to an insurgent candidacy like Tasini’s.
It is certainly (and unfortunately) true that it’s difficult for a candidate without a lot of money to get elected. But there are many factors that reduce a candidate’s electoral chances that should not bar them from a debate. It’s unlikely that NY1 would exclude a candidate who is an atheist, for example, even though many political observers think that would hinder election to a major office.
Without the exposure that debates provide, grassroots candidates running on a shoestring budget have little chance of communicating their positions to the majority of voters. As writer/activist Barbara Ehrenreich said at a Tasini campaign forum protesting the exclusion (Village Voice, 8/2/06), “When you have to have half a million dollars to tell people what you stand for, then we’re not talking about democracy anymore, we’re talking about plutocracy.”