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Defining Viable

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

I admit it—I didn't watch the presidential debates. I'd already heard all I wanted to hear from Mssrs. Bush and Gore. Or, as Ralph Nader's fond of calling them, Gush and Bore. Now, if Nader had been on the dais, I probably would have paid attention. Even Pat Buchanan, with his caffeinated eyes and ticking-bomb tenor, might have gotten me to tune in. But they weren't there (despite Nader's Abbie Hoffman-ish effort to gain entrance using a borrowed ticket).

Entertainment value aside, their absence raises a question for media outlets from the big networks all the way down to community newspapers: How do you decide which candidates deserve coverage?

"It'd be nice if it were an exact science," allows George Korda, one-time mayoral spokesman, Ingram Group operative, and inescapable self-styled Knoxville political pundit. "But I think from the national level on down, it's one of the toughest calls there is."

With the country undergoing one of its periodic surges of interest in third-party candidates (the wave dating back at least to Ross Perot's 1992 campaign), it's a call that will probably have to be made often in the next several years. When is an "alternative" a deserving subject for media attention, and when is he or she just a kook?

The first thing to recognize is the importance of media exposure for anyone running for office. As Survivor demonstrated, you can make just about anyone a star if you put them on TV enough. The slavish devotion of most political candidates to television advertising testifies to the conventional wisdom that the more times you get your name and face in people's living rooms, the better you do at the polls.

More than that, the imprimatur of serious political coverage is essential to establishing a candidate's credibility. Seeing a candidate interviewed on a Sunday talk show or featured in a lengthy newspaper profile sends a signal to the audience that the decision-makers at the news organization believe the contender has something substantive to say. And the exclusion of a candidate from those forums carries the opposite message.

You could argue that in an ideal democracy, the press would afford every legally certified candidate the same exposure and let the public sort them out. But news is a limited resource. Every second of a broadcast, every inch of newsprint, is an increment of time and money invested by the organization in question. Covering every candidate equally would require either skimping on other legitimate news to make space for perennial also-rans or meting out the same small doses of exposure to all of them. Obviously, some form of subjective judgment is required.

The third-party candidates themselves admit that. "Even here in Maryville, we have our token candidate who's always on the ballot," says Kevin Rowland, the Libertarian candidate running against Congressman Jimmy Duncan in next month's election. "I can understand the media's hesitation in dealing with someone like that."

On the other hand, Rowland says, most of the local media haven't made any distinction between such vanity contenders and, well, him. He says that since there isn't a Democrat in the race against Duncan, he's the only one challenging the area's one-party congressional rule. "I've had a few opportunities with a couple of radio shows, a couple of newspapers, some political forums I've been invited to speak at," he says. "For the most part, though, the press—especially the written press—has been ignoring my campaign."

Korda says that if third parties like the Libertarians and the Greens want coverage, they'll have to start by winning some grassroots races and showing the media they speak for more than a handful of disaffected voters. Rowland says the Libertarians have already done that. The party has 300 office-holders nationwide and is running 18 candidates for seats in Tennessee this year, ranging from municipal to federal offices.

"I don't see why, especially in races where there's just two candidates, one candidate should just be ignored," he says.

With the nascent Knox County Green Party also promising to start recruiting and running local candidates in coming years, it's something for all of us—those who report and those who read the reporting—to keep in mind. As the growing numbers of self-identified "independent" voters attests, defining the world in terms of Democrats and Republicans is taking too narrow a view.

October 12, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 41
© 2000 Metro Pulse