Photograph by Michael Amsler
Party of One: A recent candidate's forum in Sebastopol drew an underwhelming crowd.
Mainstream media have given it to Kerry. Why are we having a primary?
By Tara Treasurefield
Santa Rosa resident Tille Cassidy is an avid Howard Dean supporter, having walked local precincts for the Vermont governor's Democratic presidential campaign. Interested in learning where the other candidates stand on the issues, she attended a candidate's forum at Sebastopol's Masonic Center on Feb. 10. Cassidy never imagined she'd become one of the featured speakers of the evening.
The Kucinich campaign organized the event, and invited the Clark and Dean campaign representatives from Sonoma County, along with a member from the Kerry campaign in Marin. But the only speaker to show up that night was Miles Everett, representing Dennis Kucinich.
That's not surprising, as earlier that day, several pivotal events shook the other campaigns. John Kerry won both the Tennessee and Virginia primaries, Wesley Clark decided to withdraw, and Howard Dean was hanging by a thread.
In the face of all that, few had the time or energy for a candidates' forum. Facilitator Michael Gillette asked for volunteers from the crowd of 25 people to speak for the campaigns that weren't represented. Cassidy's hand shot up, almost in spite of herself, and a few minutes later, she was at the podium speaking for Howard Dean.
The audience learned a lot about Dean and Kucinich that night, and a little about Clark and Kerry. But the air was gloomy. "Everyone knows that Kerry will be the Democratic nominee for president," said one attendee. "Why vote on March 2?"
A fair question to ask, particularly since moving the California primary from June to March in the 1990s was supposed to give Californians a say in choosing presidential candidates. Now it appears that yet again, a presidential primary candidate has wrapped up the nomination before a single Californian has cast a vote. Who's responsible for reducing the choice to a single candidate without California voters having a say in it?
Media Massage Message
The Kucinich campaign's Everett thinks he has at least part of the answer: the mainstream media. "The other night on a news broadcast, in a picture of all the candidates onstage, Kucinich was blocked out by the podium," he says. "It's the sort of thing that a news photographer ordinarily just does not do. I try to resist paranoia, but I think the major media are trying to minimize exposure even of Kucinich's name."
Carl Jensen, professor emeritus of communication studies at Sonoma State University and founder of Project Censored, shares Everett's low opinion. "I was outraged at what they did to Dean," he says. "Now they have eliminated all other major candidates but John Kerry. It's obvious their methodology is working."
Sour grapes from sore losers? Perhaps. But a growing body of hard evidence supports Everett and Jensen's suspicions. From national outlets like the New York Times and CNN to such sources as the local paper and TV news, the mainstream media routinely promote certain candidates while discrediting others.
Last year during a debate on ABC-TV's Nightline, news anchor Ted Koppel introduced Dennis Kucinich as "the boy mayor of Cleveland." Ignoring the slight, Kucinich took Koppel to task for asking the candidates how they felt about Gore's endorsement of Dean, instead of addressing real issues.
When Koppel then observed that Kucinich wasn't doing terribly well with money and was doing even worse in the polls, Kucinich said, "I want the American people to see where the media take politics in this country. We started talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls and then we're talking about money. Well, you know, when you do that, you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people. It may be inconvenient for some of those in the media, but you know, I'm sorry about that."
It wasn't the first time the media shortchanged Kucinich. Before a CNN debate in October, each Democratic contender was supposed to receive the same amount of talk time. But when it was over, National Journal revealed the amount of time each candidate actually received. Dean, then the frontrunner, was given 14 minutes. Kerry, whose campaign was floundering at the time, was given 12; Clark, 10. Way down at the very bottom of the list was Kucinich, with five minutes. He was allowed to speak only a third to a half as much as most of the candidates, and less than all of them.
Another glaring incident was CNN's blackout of Kucinich in reports from the Washington and Maine caucuses, Feb. 7 and 8, respectively. Kucinich placed third in both states, ahead of John Edwards, Wesley Clark and Al Sharpton. But as far as CNN was concerned, he wasn't even in the running. Before the Maine caucus, Kucinich spoke at five different caucus sites, one of which was filled with television cameras.
According to William Rivers Pitt, the Kucinich campaign's press secretary, CNN reported, "Dean, struggling to revive his once-promising campaign, was the only candidate who campaigned in the state Sunday, making stops in six cities." There are no two ways about it: the statement was false.
Such a Thing as Bad Publicity
Kucinich isn't the only Democratic contender the media have treated unfairly this election season. In an analysis of nightly newscasts on CBS, NBC and ABC for January, both Media Channel and Media Tenor, two reputable media watchdogs, found that John Kerry, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark and John Edwards received 93.8 percent of the time that was allotted to Democratic candidate coverage. The remaining 6.2 percent was divided among Al Sharpton, Joe Lieberman and Dennis Kucinich.
Of course, simply receiving more coverage does not necessarily guarantee a successful candidacy. Just ask Howard Dean. A January study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), a nonpartisan research and educational organization, found that before the Iowa caucuses, 98 percent of the network evening news coverage of Kerry and Edwards was positive.
Over the same period, Dean received only 58 percent positive coverage. The center concludes that the networks "anointed" Kerry and Edwards before Iowa voters did. If the results in Iowa are any indication, it seems that the old adage "There's no such thing as bad publicity" no longer holds.
Similarly, another CMPA study in January found that "a majority of nightly network newscast evaluations of Democratic presidential frontrunner Howard Dean were negative during the 2003 'preseason,' while three-quarters of the coverage given to the other eight candidates was favorable."
To illustrate how it determines what's positive and what's negative, CMPA provides samples of typical network news coverage just before the Iowa caucus:
"I believe in [Kerry]. I believe what he says. I believe that he means what he says."--Unidentified Iowa voter, ABC (Jan. 18)
"I like [Edwards'] approach to the election. I like the way he treats other people."--Iowan Earl Crow, NBC (Jan. 11)
"[Dean] just makes one dumb statement after another."--Drake University professor, ABC (Jan. 9)
According to CMPA, "Not one person quoted by the networks had anything critical to say about North Carolina senator John Edwards (100 percent favorable coverage) in the two and a half weeks leading up to the Iowa caucus, while 96 percent of the evaluations of Massachusetts senator John Kerry were positive."
By contrast, few living Americans have escaped hearing or reading about what's come to be known as Dean’s "I have a scream" speech after the Iowa caucus. Trying to rally his supporters after the disappointing loss in Iowa, Dean used a special microphone that cancels out crowd noise in order to be heard above the din. The networks recorded Dean's remarks directly from the microphone, making it appear that Dean was screaming at the top of his lungs in a silent room. That didn't stop the media from running with the story, which effectively doomed the Dean campaign.
Matthew Felling, CMPA's media director, says, "When some saw Howard Dean [after Iowa], they saw a man who was proving his resilience; it was like a pep rally. . . . [But the media] showed the speech 633 times to bolster the claim of his unelectability. In the week between Iowa and New Hampshire, when they should have been picking apart Kerry and Edwards, they continued covering Dean's demise."
So far, only ABC and CNN have acknowledged the exaggerated attention given to the incident. ABC corrected the "I have a scream" story by noting the special microphone, and CNN acknowledged that it gave the story excessive airtime.
"Finally, of course, the pressure will be to drive Dean out," Jensen says. "If they can't beat him in Wisconsin, then here in California on March 2." (As this article was going to press, Dean had stopped actively campaigning after finishing third behind Kerry and Edwards.)
Felling adds, "When you look at the reality of the situation, Dean has the second most delegates of the race right now. But [the media] are treating him like he doesn't have a chance of winning, placing, or showing. March 2 will be the nails in the coffin."
The media focus on the horse race and have a short attention span when it comes to complex issues, the CMPA found. Only 17 percent of the stories covering the Democratic race have investigated the candidates' voting records, proposals or positions on issues, while a full 71 percent have focused on poll numbers and behind-the-scenes tactics.
Singing the Dean Dirge
Political scholar and author Michael Parenti once said, "The ruling classes have always wanted just one thing: everything." Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the continuing monopolization of mainstream media. The major media companies, Viacom, Disney, AOL TimeWarner, NewsCorp and NBC/GE, control 70 percent of prime-time network television and most cable channels. They also have vast holdings in radio, publishing, movie studios, music, Internet and other business sectors.
Clear Channel alone owns over 1,200 radio stations and 37 television stations, and is in 248 of the top 250 radio markets. And on Feb. 10, Comcast put in a $66 billion bid to buy Disney, which owns the ABC television network and ESPN. Already the largest cable company in the United States and the top provider of broadband, Comcast opposes a policy that would let the Internet remain uncensored. The media giants have spent nearly $100 million on lobbying since 1999 to increase their control of the airwaves.
In Everett's opinion, the media block out Kucinich because he's intent on dismantling them. "They know very well that they would be in for some rough sledding if he ever became president," he says.
Jensen has a similar explanation for the media's treatment of Dean. "I think it's really more than coincidence that last November, Dean vowed to re-regulate the media, and under questioning, admitted that he would seek to break up a company like AOL Time Warner. It was after that that the media's attitude about Dean seemed to change, from one of the fair-haired boy, their anointed victor, to the angry man. The corporate media is a serious threat to our democracy, and Dean literally promised to do something about that."
Felling has several other explanations for the media's behavior. "The news magazines really fell for Dean hard last summer," he says. "They were looking for an anti-Bush, a south pole to Bush's north pole. It was a compelling story.
"[But after] people started paying attention to him, he was no longer the loveable loser. He was getting arrows from the press and from his opponents. He suffered the most from having nine or 10 rivals for the nomination. Everyone can take on the frontrunner. We saw Gephardt get very negative on Dean in Iowa. The voters did not reward Gephardt, but they rewarded the alternative. I think Americans fell for that bumper sticker 'Date Dean and Marry Kerry.' They were really into the passion and verve of Dean, but they weren't willing to commit."
Also, adds Felling, "[the media] simplify things to a horrible and destructive degree. In 2000 most people looked at the presidential race as the Liar vs. the Dunce. Here we were with Dean and Bush, the Angry Man vs. the Cowboy. [They were] covering Howard Dean for a lot of 2003. Then they cracked open the frontrunner and saw what made him tick. That's what the media are supposed to do with presumptive nominees. But after Iowa, the media didn't move to Kerry and Edwards scrutiny. They just continued to sing the dirge of Dean."
There's yet another factor that helps explain the media's rejection of certain candidates: money or, rather, the lack of it. Media analyst Norman Solomon says, "In the presidential race, the most important early contests are the 'money primary' and the 'media primary.' Both occur before a single vote has been cast. Generally, for presidential campaigns, raising a lot of money is a necessary precondition for serious national media coverage. And, with few exceptions, extensive media coverage is crucial for effective fundraising."
Of course, the media aren't alone in shaping the outcome of elections. Witness the exclusion of Dennis Kucinich from the Feb. 22 debate in Los Angeles for failing to meet the League of Women Voters' requirement that all participants must have "a standing of at least 3 percent in a nationally recognized independent poll of likely voters, such as Gallop, CNN, NBC/Washington Post, Zogby, etc."
According to the League, this is really the doing of the Commission on Presidential Debates, a creation of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. The commission took over the presidential debates in 1988, and maintains tight control of how they're run. Open debates are part of Kucinich's platform, and according to the Kucinich campaign website, "The [Commission on Presidential Debates] has transformed the presidential debates from dynamic political forums to glorified news conferences where candidates recite prepackaged sound bites and avoid significant issues discussion."
Swinging the Swingers
Steven Hill is senior analyst at the Center for Voting and Democracy in San Francisco and author of Fixing Elections. He says that the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) lined up against Dean for several reasons, including his characterization of the DLC as the Republican wing of the Democratic Party, his support for gay rights in Vermont and his stand against the war on Iraq. Also, says Hill, "Bill Clinton [who founded the DLC] thinks you have to win with a prosperity-celebrating message. 'Dean the angry Democrat' doesn’t play well among the swing voters."
In Fixing Elections, Hill defines swing voters as "that small slice of fuzzy-headed and disengaged voters who determine the outcome of elections [in the United States]." And as far as the DLC is concerned, the swing voters-citizens who live in states where both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have a chance of winning-are the only voters that matter. On this point, the DLC and Steven Hill are in full agreement.
"It's going to come down to this handful of states," Hill says, naming Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington state, Minnesota and New Hampshire. "To [the DLC], it's very much a map kind of thing. It's too bad the media focuses on other things. The public would be better served and better informed if the media looked at it the way [the DLC] does. All the polls that show Kerry is ahead of Bush are meaningless. The only meaningful polls are in the swing states."
But as Hill says, few Americans are concerned about swing states. In California right now, they're wondering if there's any reason to vote for one of the Democratic presidential contenders in the March 2 primary.
Speaking to this point, media critic Solomon says, "In the corporate-driven vehicles of presidential races, any individual is expendable, and it's certainly possible that Kerry won't be nominated. But as a practical matter, the campaign for the Democratic nomination seems to be just about over. People in California will be in a position to essentially ratify judgments that have already been rendered, via caucuses and primaries, elsewhere in the country."
"Such realities should not make us passive; they should spur us on to do more effective grassroots organizing and to challenge the media conglomerates by building independent noncorporate media institutions, as well as by confronting the corporate mainstream media."
Those who have campaigned locally for candidates remain anything but passive. Attorney and mediator Paul Zamarian coordinates the Clark campaign in Sonoma County. Now that Clark has dropped out of the race, he has a new priority. "It's the end of Clark's presidential campaign, but it's not the end of the 'unseating George Bush campaign,'" he says.
A member of the Sonoma County Democratic National Committee, Zamarian says the group will back whoever wins the nomination. "I'm going to suggest to our grassroots people--and hopefully the Dean people will do the same--that they keep their group fairly intact, and we all join forces in getting people to register and work for the defeat of George Bush," Zamarian stresses. "The message this year is 'Get rid of George Bush.'"
Zamarian says he'll probably vote for Clark in the California primary, and believes that he'd make a good secretary of state or secretary of defense if the Democrats retake the presidency.
Jensen, who co-hosts the Rohnert Park/Cotati Dean Meet-Up group, says that the Dean campaign is very much alive. "At our meeting on Feb. 4--following Iowa, New Hampshire and all that stuff--I was very apprehensive. I was surprised that 25 people showed up, and that they weren't saying, 'What's happened to Dean? Maybe we should stop.' They were mad, they were absolutely mad!
"The upshot was that they demanded that I hold the meetings once a week instead of every other week. Then we had a Dean Visibility Day and about a dozen people showed up at the Cotati Plaza. Dean's campaign is [actually] a movement. People are out to change the system."
The Kucinich campaign is also a movement, says Everett, and it has only begun. "This is just chapter one of Kucinich on the national scene," he assures. "We have a lead personality now that we've lacked since [Minnesota senator] Paul Wellstone's death. What we may be helping to create here is a national senator from Ohio who would be enormously valuable with the kind of following he has throughout the country now, where everything he says is going to resonate with people who have gotten involved in this campaign."
Everett stresses another reason to vote for Dean or Kucinich on March 2. As long as they're in the race, every vote cast for them will help them win delegates, and the more delegates they have, the more respect they'll get in July, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
"What's important is that there be a strong progressive vote in as many states as we can muster it. We need as many progressive delegates at the convention as we can get," Everett says. "That might be the only time a lot of people will hear either Dean or Kucinich: during their platform time. If the Democratic leadership wants the Dean and Kucinich delegates, they'd better show them respect."
Tille Cassidy explains why she's going to vote in the March 2 primary. "I never give up," she says. "We can't afford to give up. We need to get out there and vote. My vision is that some of the candidates will have a merging of sorts and combine delegates, to represent issues that aren't part of Kerry's platform. There are a lot of good people out there. We could have a powerful platform and program. Get out and vote. Don't ever give up. We're really close to making significant changes to our government."
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From the February 25-March 3, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.