Turning the presidential campaign into a pie-throwing contest

Gary Johnson is saying something worth listening to. It’s about the conduct of the presidential election.

New Mexico’s former governor is running for president again as the candidate of the Libertarian Party. He probably will be the only third-party candidate on the ballot in all 50 states. I am not a fan of Johnson or his political philosophy, but he’s absolutely right about the process.

He tried to run as a Republican but was not given a chance to appear on Republican debate stages because he was not high enough in the polls. As he has said, the only way to get higher in the polls is to get enough exposure on TV. Debates are one critically important way to do that. The other way is through all the interviews Johnson didn’t get.

Last fall and into the spring, when Republican candidates were interviewed, they were usually asked to comment on Donald Trump, and were not given a chance to talk about their own views on national policy. It was disgraceful.

Senator Bernie Sanders didn’t get much exposure, either, you recall.

Way back before the public was invited, a few network executives apparently decided which candidates were going to get coverage and which would be ignored.

I watched some Republican debates starting when there were 17 candidates. The networks colluded with the Republican National Committee on a format that insulted half the candidates. They were split into two groups, with those polling lower assigned to what commentators disparagingly called the “kids’ table.” I thought there should have been a random selection so each debate had a mix of the best known and lesser known candidates.

The second-tier debates were interesting, substantive and respectful, but they did not change the fortunes of those candidates. And the networks, which have the choice of what to cover and how to cover it, have chosen, day after day, month after month, to cover the campaign for the highest office in the world as a pie-throwing contest.

We the people own the airwaves where the broadcast signals fly and the city streets where the cables are laid. The networks are licensed and franchised by public officials, locally and nationally, on our behalf.

The major networks are all owned by six or seven enormous conglomerates (Disney, Comcast, Time-Warner, etc.), most of which have deep financial interests in industries besides the news business. Nothing stops them from covering the presidential campaign for profit rather than public service. Maybe something should.

I had to laugh when I saw news coverage recently in which Facebook was accused of anti-conservative bias in its trending posts. I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t care. Facebook is a private company, not a public utility. If the networks can give Donald Trump 80 minutes of coverage for every minute they give Senator Sanders (as analysis has shown), who are they to throw stones at Facebook?

There used to be something called the Fairness Doctrine, a rule of the Federal Communications Commission requiring broadcasters to devote time to controversial issues and to air opposing views on those issues. The doctrine was effectively revoked in 1987 after being weakened by a series of court challenges. It was less than perfect, but it helped force the networks to serve the public interest rather than their own. And the broadcast networks used to be independent companies devoted to nothing but their TV shows.

A serious question: what is the meaning of the First Amendment and “freedom of the press” in an era when the “news” is dictated and dominated by a few enormous corporations that set the agenda for the rest of us? Can the First Amendment survive this – and should it?

As a journalist, I’m supposed to be a flag-waver for free speech, but these days I am not sure what that means.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2016



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