While the major-party race for the White House has been the subject of broad media attention for more than a year, the corporate media have mostly ignored at least four substantial third-party and independent candidates for the presidency.
Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney and Libertarian candidate Bob Barr are both former congressmembers from the state of Georgia. Their presence in the White House race, along with independent candidate Ralph Nader and Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin, would seem to present an interesting counterpoint to the major-party race between Barack Obama and John McCain. While the corporate press has apparently decided that the differences between Obama and McCain are more or less the only political opinions worth exploring this election season, the third-party and independent candidates take positions on issues like drug war policy, Israel/Palestine, civil liberties and military intervention that differ markedly from the views of either major-party candidate.
According to a Nexis news database search of the major network newscasts, McKinney and Baldwin's names have never been mentioned this year on the networks' news programs, while Barr and Nader's candidacies have garnered a total of only 31 mentions between them (15 times on ABC, 12 times on NBC and 4 on CBS). Including the Fox network-- which airs Fox News Sunday on its broadcast affiliates--yields one passing mention of Nader, and an interview with Barr (6/29/08). PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer offered passing mentions of Nader and Barr when they announced their candidacies (2/25/08, 5/12/08); more recently, the show has interviewed each of them one-on-one (10/14/08, 10/20/08).
The context in which Barr and Nader have been covered is worth examining; by FAIR's count, many of the references to the candidates dealt primarily with the potential effect on the fortunes of the major-party candidates--i.e., whether a third-party candidate would be a "spoiler." That accounted for 11 mentions of Barr and Nader.
Passing mentions of Nader or Barr accounted for another 13 mentions; four of these were joking or mocking references to Nader. (ABC's This Week includes humor clips from late-night talkshows, two of which included Nader as a punch line.)
A March 4 report on ABC's Good Morning America discussed the presidential election with a panel of children, one of whom asked, "There's like another thing, there's a guy named something Nader.... I think he's either running for the Green Party or the independents." ABC correspondent Chris Cuomo misinformed the children by saying "Green Party."
Actual interviews with the candidates were somewhat rare, but Nader has appeared on NBC's Meet the Press (2/24/08) and Nightly News (10/20/08), ABC's This Week (6/29/08) and the CBS Early Show (2/25/08). Barr has appeared on ABC's This Week (7/16/08).
The main question media tend to pose about third-party candidates is whether or not they will impact the outcome of the election. This is not at all surprising, given corporate media's preference for focusing on the horserace aspect of politics. The lesser-known candidates' generally low standing in the polls appears to make it less likely that they will play a decisive role on Election Day, but the media's refusal to open up the political conversation makes this outcome more or less a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But besides being a process for choosing officials, elections are also an opportunity to discuss ideas. By ignoring independent and third party candidates, the corporate media are also helping keep a range of policy options about key issues that are not espoused by either major party candidate off the table--including single payer healthcare, a full withdrawal from Iraq, ending the war in Afghanistan and ending the death penalty. Democracy Now! (10/16/08) allowed Nader and McKinney an opportunity to respond to the debate questions posed to Obama and McCain-- a rare opportunity for such candidates to let voters hear them alongside major-party nominees.
Numerous policies that are now seen as integral to American life were first proposed by third-party candidates; Socialist Eugene Debs, for example, promoted the idea of Social Security in his repeated runs for the presidency in the early 20th century, and Progressive Henry Wallace advocated desegregation in his 1948 race.
It's possible that the minor-party candidates in the 2008 election are suggesting programs that will one day seem as indispensable as Debs and Wallace's ideas. If so, you won't hear about them from the corporate media.
Updated version 10/23/08