The San Francisco Chronicle has run a thoughtful piece examining the ability of broadcast (or cable) network debate hosts to set what may be arbitrary standards on which candidates get access to their forums, and even then at the last minute to change the standards to the detriment of previously qualifying contenders.  The incident prompting the Chronicle’s look at what some people think is an undue power in the media to control the public’s access to the full spectrum of its electoral options was prompted by a decision of the Nevada Supreme Court concluding that a lower court judge had no authority to prevent MSNBC from excluding Representative Dennis Kucinich from his previous entitlement to join its debating table prior to the Nevada caucuses. 

What galled Kucinich and his supporters in particular was that so long as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was still in the race, MSNBC had drawn the line at the top four preferences in a national poll, which would have meant Richardson on the panel with Clinton, Obama and Edwards.  But when Richardson announced his withdrawal from the race, MSNBC changed the criteria, admitting only the top three and shutting out the next-in-line Kucinich.

Kucinich himself has today announced his withdrawal from the race.

Those commenting to the Chronicle (including me) seemed to agree that while the incident may lead the public—and not necessarily just Kucinich supporters—to trust the role of the media in politics even less, the court was probably legally correct in deciding that a candidate’s unfairness claim was to be resolved, if at all, by the Federal Communications Commission, and that MSNBC’s breach of promise was simply that, not a breach of contract amenable to court remedies.

Kucinich’s plight nonetheless lends fresh relevance to two proposals that have yet to get much respect from anyone with the power to do anything about them.  Both proposals would tend to give less well known and underfinanced bidders for national office a better chance to get their faces, qualifications and positions before the public in a way not doomed to marginality by those with big positive name recognition, big war chests or both.

The first scheme would simply re-order the state primaries into four or more progressively bigger population arenas, so relatively lesser known and modestly financed candidates could establish their relative viability early, reaching smaller populations without having to spend huge sums from the word go.  As described by,  one variant of  this idea,

(t)he Graduated Random Presidential Primary System, or The American Plan (sometimes known as the California Plan), is designed to begin with contests in small-population states, where candidates do not need tens of millions of dollars in order to compete. A wide field of presidential hopefuls will be competitive in the early going. A "minor candidate’s" surprise successes in the early rounds, based more on the merit of the message than on massive amounts of money, will tend to attract money from larger numbers of small contributors for the campaign to spend in later rounds of primaries.
    Thus there should be more longevity of candidacy, and more credible challengers to the "front-runners." However, as the campaign proceeds, the aggregate value of contested states becomes successively larger, requiring the expenditure of larger amounts of money in order to campaign effectively. A gradual weeding-out process occurs, as less-successful candidates drop out of the race.
    The goal is for the process to produce a clear winner in the end, but only after all voices have had a chance to be heard.

The other idea is (or orginally was) to attack three related evils at once: the often prohibitive expense of buying broadcast ad time in large population states, the widespread if not universal failure of local broadcasters in particular to do much political reporting during the campaigns, and the amount of elected officials need to devote to fundraising, even if the process is not tainted by improper influence.

The most recent, scaled-back effort in this regard is the Fair Elections Now Act, introduced last year as S. 936 by co-authors Richard Durbin (D-IL), Arlen Specter (R-PA), Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Barack Obama (D-IL). This bill is a more modest third try after two stillborn earlier attempts. The immediate predecessor, S. 1497 of 2003, the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act, was introduced by co-author Senators John McCain of Arizona, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Durbin and Feigold.  That measure was a replate of a similarly DOA bill by three of the same authors in 2002. 

The Fair Elections Now Act no longer has McCain’s name on it, and has trimmed its scope to be a kind of public financing (through advertising vouchers) approach confined to Senate races only.  The more ambitious predecessors would have controlled how much broadcasters could charge for campaign spots and would have required them, in order to preserve their broadcast licenses, to dedicate a minimum amount of public service time to campaign reporting.

Confining the major thrust of the bill to public financing may be relatively desirable but is insufficient. says,

This voluntary alternative to traditional privately financed campaigns would free candidates from the incessant, time-consuming money chase that has tainted public perceptions of elected officials and fostered abuses that undermine our democracy. Candidates could instead devote their time and energy to talking with their constituents about the issues that are important to them.

But look where public financing has got Jon Edwards for all his liberated time and energy to personally address voters, when confronting the enormous media-buying warchests of his competitors. Before deciding that it’s too much to ask that broadcasters earn their property-like possession of the public airwaves rather than simply sell it back to the public, it might be interesting to hear what Representative Kucinich might have said had he been given a chance in Nevada . . .

BILL MOYERS: . . . (Y)ou have had less time in the debates and less news coverage than almost any of the other candidates.
DENNIS KUCINICH: That’s true. But you know what?
BILL MOYERS: And what’s your explanation for that?
DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I think part of it is the media’s attempt to be able to control an agenda that doesn’t upset the status quo.


BILL MOYERS: What rationale did ABC give you for not including you in Saturday night’s debate (before the New Hampshire primary)?
DENNIS KUCINICH: Whatever their criteria was, they have no right to make the decision for the people of New Hampshire prior to the election being held. They have no right. As licensees, you know, the airwaves belong to the public, lest we forget. They don’t belong to ABC. Disney, which owns ABC, has had executives contributing to some of the candidates in this race. It’s a very serious matter here.
BILL MOYERS: But the editors of ABC say that, well, at some point, you know, as I do with this broadcast, they have to start making choices. And they have to start applying certain possibilities to the candidates.
DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, you know what, Bill? How can you have a debate if you don’t have a voice that challenges all the others?

It’s no accident that the “kinetics,” as the military would put it, among the non-Kucinich Democrats has settled on reciprocal alleged distortions of one another’s accomplishments, biographies and campaign utterances.  In terms of substantive principles and goals there is not that much to distinguish among them.  Neither they nor their journalistic inquisitors seem that enthusiastic about real debates posing real alternatives.  We may not agree with all or even most of Kucinich’s ideas, but it’s pretty clear that if the Democrats most frequently espousing “change” took the notion seriously, there’d be room for him at the table.