Kucinich's 'futile fight' reveals worries about the media's influences
The legacy of Dennis Kucinich's longshot presidential campaign may be less his anti-war views than a futile fight that legally reinforced the rights of TV networks to organize their own debates.
That may come at a cost, however, with some Americans are already worried about the media's influence on the campaign.
Because of Kucinich's low poll numbers and his poor performance in early contests, he was excluded from Democratic debates on ABC, MSNBC and CNN in January.
The Cleveland congressman, who officially dropped out of the race Friday, protested each decision to either the Federal Communications Commission or the courts. He argued the networks were doing a disservice to voters by effectively silencing a candidate who had qualified for federal matching funds.
While Kucinich was a candidate, the networks said it had already become clear that he wasn't going to be elected president. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards all had a chance, and all debated.
"We want to give voters a chance to make an informed judgment about the people who would be their president," said Sam Feist, CNN's political director. "By having people in a debate that don't have a reasonable chance at the nomination, that takes away from the voters' ability to hear from the people who do have a reasonable chance."
There have been nearly two dozen televised campaign forums to date, and Kucinich has been on stage for most of them.
Yet he received little support in Iowa, the few people who stood up for him at caucuses dispersed to other candidates. In New Hampshire, Kucinich polled 1.4 percent of the Democratic vote. In Michigan, he got 3.7 percent.
NBC News took its fight to sideline Kucinich to the Nevada Supreme Court, after a lower court ordered the candidate be included in the Jan. 15 debate there. NBC said the order was a "brazen violation of a news organization's First Amendment rights," and the higher court overturned it hours before airtime.
Getting blocked from the Nevada debate influenced his decision to withdraw from the race.
"I understood that when I was locked out of that Las Vegas debate—we fought hard to get into it—I knew then that it was going to be really tough to be able to continue, because if people can't see you, how are they going to be able to understand that you're running (and) what you stand for?" he said.
Kucinich got nowhere with FCC complaints filed before ABC's Jan. 5 debate and CNN's forum on Jan. 21. The commission said in the CNN decision that a network can choose debate participants so long as it wasn't done to benefit one particular candidate.
Forcing a network to include one candidate is censorship, and the FCC said it won't do that.
At some point while planning these events, lines need to be drawn, Feist said. The New Hampshire ballot had dozens of candidates, he said. How would it be possible to hold a meaningful debate with all of them?
Still, the idea of keeping candidates out of debates offended some people's sense of fair play.
"Tonight" show host Jay Leno, for example, invited Republican Ron Paul on his show for a lengthy chat after Paul was not included in a GOP forum run by Fox News Channel in New Hampshire.
"They should participate," said Kevin Howley, a professor of media studies at DePauw University. "That's the nature of democracy; you've got a variety of perspectives. There are a certain number of people who have attitudes that are out of the mainstream that are unfortunately being shut out."
With most reporters consumed with the mechanics of campaigns, debates are often the only place citizens can hear an extended discussion of issues, he said.
But by pressing the issue, Kucinich inadvertently affirmed the rights of networks to set their own debate rosters—and that precedent might inhibit little-known candidates in years to come.
Networks might be tempted earlier to ignore such candidates—someone, perhaps, like Mike Huckabee, who was polling only 2 percent of the GOP vote last June.
Howley believes that TV networks banned Kucinich because of his positions on issues, not his low poll numbers.
That's a view that corrodes the reputations of news organizations, and is a hidden danger from this fight. It has already been a tough month: Many people were angry at journalists and pundits for essentially writing off Clinton's chances in New Hampshire before she won the primary.
In such an atmosphere, conspiracy theories are born. Kucinich argued in his ABC complaint that one reason for his exclusion was that network parent Walt Disney Co. and its executives had contributed to campaigns involving Clinton, Obama, Edwards and Bill Richardson, but not to him.
Feist said he rejects the idea that past campaign contributions had anything to do with the logistics of setting up a debate.
"CNN is in the business of covering the campaign and, in this case, presenting debates and we don't take a position for or against any of the candidates," he said. "We simply work on behalf of our viewers to present the candidates who have a reasonable chance of getting the nomination."
This is one debate, however, that Kucinich's withdrawal may not end.