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Saturday, August 20, 2011

How the Mainstream Media Influences Elections

Update: An updated version of this article was included in the Alternative Political Society's magazine, The Alternative. You can view it here (PDF).

Recently on The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly responded to a viewer's question about why he did not provide coverage of GOP candidates Ron Paul and Herman Cain. After all, isn't O'Reilly supposed to be the "no-spin zone"?. Bill's response was simply "they have no chance of winning". Aside from the fact that the show still covers unwinnable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, this illustrates a major paradox of election coverage.

Paul and Cain are not being denied coverage because they have no chance of winning. Rather, they have no chance of winning because they are being denied coverage. Below is a list of current GOP candidates, and the number of Google News articles for the last 30 days referring to each of them as of 2:20 PM on August 20. The names were put in quotes, to avoid articles about Paul Rudd and Ron Berkle from being included in this.

Michele Bachmann: 15,400
Ron Paul: 10,400
Mitt Romney: 17,200
Rick Perry: 23,200
Herman Cain: 5,320
Rick Santorum: 5,520

With Bachmann, Perry, and Romney being hailed as the front-runners, it comes as no surprise that they have far more news stories than Paul, Cain, and Santorum. However, is this a cause or an effect of their lack of success? First of all, Ron Paul finished a close second in the Iowa Straw Poll. But the media still ignored him. Jonathan Martin of Politico.com wrote an article which originally had the headline "Michele Bachmann wins Ames Straw Poll, Tim Pawlenty Gets Third". After Pawlenty withdrew, the headline was revised to simply note Bachmann's win. However, at no point did it note Paul's second place finish, even though he received 2,500 more votes than Pawlenty.

This attention bias is not new. During the CNN-Youtube debate for the 2008 Democratic nomination, fringe candidate Mike Gravel questioned whether it was "fair" that he had received significantly less airtime than Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards had. Indeed, according to the Wikipedia article, 13 candidates were asked to all the candidates, though Obama, Edwards, and Clinton were frequently given more time to answer these. Furthermore, seven questions were specifically directed at Edwards, ten at Obama, and nine at Clinton. So-called "minor" candidates Joe Biden and Dennis Kucinich were given five questions each. Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson, also dubbed "minor" by the mainstream media, were given seven each, the same as Edwards, but many of those were redirects that had already been asked to a major candidate. Gravel himself received six questions in addition to the ones for everybody.

In the 2010 New York Governor election, the TV networks managed to hold a debate featuring all seven candidates on the ballot. In addition to Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican Carl Paladino, five minor party candidates were featured. Howie Hawkins (Green), Warren Redlich (Libertarian), Jimmy McMillan (Rent is Too Damn High), Charles Barron (Freedom) and Kristin Davis (Anti-Prohibition) all appeared in person. This is a change from the standard practice of only featuring the Democrat and the Republican and ignoring everyone else.

The results showed. Hawkins, Redlich, and McMillan all exceeded their parties' highest vote totals ever in a NY governor election, and in the case of Redlich and McMillan, by a large margin. Hawkins managed to obtain 50,000 votes and get the Green Party "major party" status in New York, thus entitling it to easier ballot access in local elections within the state for the next four years. The Libertarian Party came within 1,500 votes of the magic 50K, whereas it had never even achieved more than 15,000 votes before. McMillan, on the other hand, become somewhat of a celebrity, inspiring a sketch on Saturday Night Live. Of course, "major party" and "minor party" status is just as bad as "major candidate" and "minor candidate" differentiation, but nevertheless, helping these third parties gain more attention is never a bad thing. I give a lot of credit to NY1 for organizing this, and to Cuomo and Paladino for agreeing to it, something most Democrats and Republicans would never do.

I hope that in the future, we will stop seeing less of a media bias against alleged "minor candidates", both in the primaries and general elections. I also hope that voters themselves will stop refusing to vote for minor parties simply because they are "minor". The Saratoga, NY newspaper The Post-Star endorsed Andrew Cuomo in that election. However, it said something rather curious about Redlich and Hawkins.

We've been particularly impressed by Libertarian candidate Warren Redlich, a Guilderland town councilman and attorney who distinguished himself at the lone gubernatorial debate with reasonable, well-considered, educated responses to discussion of the state's problems. He is willing to be specific about how he will eliminate several state agencies, end corporate welfare, and cap public sector pay and pensions as a way of stopping the state's wasteful spending practices.
With more governing experience and by broadening his voter base, Mr. Redlich could become a serious statewide candidate in the future. If you're casting a protest vote, Mr. Redlich is your best choice. But now is not the time to install a newbie in the governor's office, even an articulate one with good ideas.

Perennial Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, a UPS worker from central New York, is running on a modified New Deal platform that calls for public works projects and taxing the rich, as well as legalizing marijuana and free SUNY tuition. He's not ready to run the state.

This begs two similar questions. Why isn't now the time to elect a political newbie as governor? Has politics as usual worked yet? And why isn't Hawkins ready to run the state. So they don't agree with his platform. I certainly don't either. But they also obviously don't agree with Paladino's platform, or they would have endorsed him. Yet they don't say he's not ready to run the state. (Interestingly enough, the Daily News did mention that the GOP failed to field a remotely credible candidate in their endorsement of Cuomo. Had they said anything else, that wouldn't be too unusual. They didn't.)

So to summarize, we should judge for ourselves who the best candidates are. And we should be given the resources to consider ALL candidates equally, not just the ones the media wants us to consider. So to both the media and the voters in general - be open to those candidates you consider "minor". With your help, we can make them major.

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