Friday, January 18, 2008

Debate in a Box

Dennis Kucinich was excluded from MSNBC's Nevada Democratic Candidates' Debate on January 15th. Now, this is not the first debate he has been excluded from, nor is he the only candidate to have been excluded from a debate, but it illustrates how narrow the primary debates have become, and the media's role in reducing the presidential field. Ostensibly, the reason for excluding Kucinich and other "fringe" candidates is that they have no hope of winning and must be thrust aside to make room for the more "serious" contenders (the level of seriousness increasing proportionally to the thickness of a candidate's wallet). Polls are used to assess a candidate's viability. As the race progresses, candidates deemed to be flagging are simply not invited or locked out of the debate venues. One might presume, however, that lack of television time might have something to do with a candidate's low poll numbers. Even in the early debates, it is painfully obvious who the media favorites are, since very few questions are posed to the "second-tier" candidates, strategically positioned at the edges of the stage. The defenders of this system of exclusion point out that the networks are simply responding to public preference. This is democracy in action, they say. In this strange form of democracy, an abstract "people" express their desires through the mediation of pollsters and network executives. An endless repetition of empty signifiers (like "change") takes the place of policy dialogue, and we are led to believe that the pageant-like spectacle of heavily made-up lawyers and career politicians is a reaffirmation of democracy.

Yet, in this "democratic" process, certain candidates are allowed to continue; others are not. There are obvious monetary concerns for the networks at play here: media corporations make millions from the campaigns. It's smart economic practice to ensure that the richest contenders (read "ad sponsors") remain in business. But there is something else at work. Take, for instance, MSNBC, the network that left Kucinich in the lurch. NBC's parent company is GE (whose subsidiary is Raytheon, a major defense contractor). The fact that Kucinich has promised to end all military operations in Iraq (and presumably elsewhere) if elected President couldn't lead a company like NBC/GE/Raytheon to keep him silent, could it? Those billions of dollars they get for building missiles and jet engines don't mean as much to the company as promoting free speech, do they?

Ironically, NBC argued (successfully) before the Nevada Supreme Court that being forced to include Kucinich was, in fact, a violation of its First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. As Kucinich has correctly pointed out, though, broadcast networks (operating under license on public airwaves) are regulated by the FCC to ensure the responsible use of these airwaves in the public interest. NBC's lawyers maintain that the matter concerning candidates' inclusion in debates falls under the purview of the FCC, and not that of the courts. In this, they may be correct, but this leaves the public no recourse, since the FCC, under Bush, has effectively become a deregulator in the interests of the communications industry. Don't let any of this bother you, though. NBC knows what you want, and it's not Dennis Kucinich or an end to war.

While Kucinich's policy stances seem strangely anachronistic (even from a radical standpoint) in our neoliberal, globalized era, and even though he may, indeed, stand no chance of winning, his exclusion serves to confine the debate to tightly defined, comfortable channels. Just how narrow the discourse has become can be seen by glancing at any nightly news program. When commentators aren't spouting banalities (for example, about whether a candidate's show of emotion is an indication of her ability or inability to be a strong leader), they fall into commonplaces about the high cost of "universal" health care (never mentioning universal war) or how Republican candidates must appeal to their "base", the evangelical right. CNN (supposedly a "liberal" network) has Glenn Beck wondering why John Edwards isn't wearing an ushanka with a red star. By these standards, Kucinich must be Lenin himself, even though he is clearly a long way from being a Marxist. The media's myopic tunnel-vision has a focus decidedly right-of-center.

(For more information, see Democracy Now!'s coverage of this issue).