Dec 12 2003

ABC Responds to Critics of Campaign Coverage

In response to critics of ABC News‘ decision to pull the journalists traveling with three presidential campaigns, ABC has addressed the issue in its online daily political journal, the Note (12/12/03).

Under the headline “Fairness: It’s What We All Want,” the response addressed itself to supporters of candidate Dennis Kucinich, who have been the most critical of the network’s decision to curtail direct coverage of Kucinich’s as well as Rev. Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun’s campaigns.

The response started out by noting what it says sets the Kucinich campaign apart:

Rep. Kucinich has succeeded in raising decent amounts of money in small contributions and building grassroots support in no small part because he has consistently espoused a message that is distinct from the rest of the field and has appeal to many Americans who feel the Democratic Party and the leading candidates don’t speak to their aspirations for the nation and the world. Kucinich’s views on foreign policy, defense spending, corporate influence, trade, the politics of meaning, and social welfare are all quite similar to those of his friend Ralph Nader. These views resonate with many Americans, which was made evident by Nader’s success in 2000, and has been confirmed by the following that Kucinich has built this year.

It is an important and distinctive message, but is not likely to capture the Democratic nomination.

However, it does attract a committed and intense following, and it is the responsibility of all major news organizations to report on the substance of that message and the reasons it has appeal for millions of Americans, and to strike a balance in coverage that doesn’t inhibit the ability of such messages to find an audience.”

The Note defended the resources that ABC has devoted to covering the Democratic race:

Contrary to the impression some of you have, ABC News has demonstrated its commitment to all the major candidates running for the Democratic nomination by devoting more resources to covering the Kucinich, Moseley Braun and Sharpton campaigns than any other news organization in the world.

That’s right and unambiguous: ABC News has spent more time on the trail with the Kucinich campaign than any other news organization.

The Note pointed to the coverage given to Kucinich by ABC‘s Melinda Arons, the producer who was pulled from traveling with the Kucinich campaign:

Melinda Arons of ABC News has covered the campaign since September and is one of just two reporters– print or broadcast– to have been assigned to cover the campaign exclusively.

Only Arons, though, has been traveling with Kucinich everywhere as he makes his case for his candidacy.

She has written daily about a candidate who rarely receives press coverage in any newspaper; she has logged more hours of Kucinich footage than anybody else; she is one of the very few to have produced a video package dedicated solely to Kucinich; she is one of the few to have written and voiced a long radio package detailing a day in the life of the Kucinich campaign.

In short, Melinda Arons has probably covered Dennis Kucinich in person more than all other reporters combined during this campaign. In fact, in her writing and broadcast work about Kucinich, Arons has covered just about every issue in his platform.

The Note cited a lengthy list of Kucinich policy positions and aspects of his campaign that have been covered by Arons–ranging from his opposition to the PATRIOT Act to his support for gay marriage.

While acknowledging that Arons (and other producers assigned to the Sharpton and Moseley Braun campaigns) will no longer be traveling full-time with the campaigns, the Note says that “the reporters are still assigned to report multiple times each day by phone and e-mail on these campaigns, meaning that ABC News continues to cover these three candidacies more closely than all but perhaps one other news organization.” It said that the decision to stop traveling with the three campaigns “was made early this week, unrelated to any other events, and is, frankly, a routine coverage decision.”

The Note concludes:

ABC News has a principled and demonstrated commitment to make sure many political voices are heard in our democracy, and our ongoing commitment to covering the Kucinich campaign reflects that. But like our competitors, we have very finite resources that we can spend on covering America’s great democracy. And that means we have to make choices all the time.

We don’t want to play any role in deciding who the Democratic Party will nominate. But based on the totality of our reporting, we believe it is necessary to make certain the candidates who are more likely to win the nomination and therefore the White House get covered as well in a way that will help voters make their decisions.

So for you Kucinich supporters who say we have “stooped to new lows,” that our coverage has been “biased, misleading, inaccurate, and just plain crap,” that we have “marginalized,” “dismissed,” and abandoned the three candidates–we agree that we have a responsibility to strive to let all voices be heard, and we take that seriously, but we hope you have a different perspective now that you have the facts.

FAIR appreciates that ABC News took the time to respond to the many activists, including hundreds of FAIR-L members, who contacted the network about its campaign coverage decision. The response in the Note sheds light on the decision-making process at ABC.

It’s noteworthy that, aside from a reference to “the totality of our reporting,” ABC‘s argument that Kucinich is unlikely to win the nomination is based entirely on an analysis of his views as being “distinct from the rest of the field” and as being “quite similar to those of his friend Ralph Nader.” If ABC in fact is predicting Kucinich or any other candidate’s success on the basis of their views, we would suggest that that is a job best left to voters.

The Note argues that ABC has done a better job of covering Kucinich and other candidates than other media outlets. Given that most broadcast outlets have done a very poor job of covering any of the candidates for president, this is a low standard to hold oneself to. We would prefer to judge ABC News by its stated “commitment to make sure many political voices are heard in our democracy,” and by its declared intention to cover campaigns “in a way that will help voters make their decisions.”

Finally, the Note‘s discussion of Arons’ coverage of the Kucinich campaign obscures the fact that almost none of it has appeared on ABC‘s television network, through which ABC News reaches the bulk of its audience. Until the recent debate, Kucinich’s name had not even been spoken on Nightline, probably ABC‘s most prestigious news show; World News Tonight, its main daily news report, had four mentions of Kucinich, only one of which even indicated any of his policy positions–a half-sentence reference to his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq. Sharpton has not been given any more coverage on World News Tonight; Carol Moseley Braun has received even less. ABC‘s Sunday morning talk show This Week devoted a segment to interviews with the three candidates (11/30/03), which host George Stephanopoulos introduced by asking, “Why do they run when winning isn’t an option?”

Given that there will no longer be anyone from ABC News traveling with these campaigns, the odds are great that the near-invisibility of these candidates will only worsen. While we’re glad to hear that ABC News seeks to help voters make decisions, their coverage so far of Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley Braun has left voters who rely on ABC television news almost entirely in the dark.

See FAIR’s original alert:

“ABC Narrows the Field” (12/11/03)

See ABC’s The Note: