Dennis Kucinich cannot get a break from big media.
The co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus is running a vigorous, intellectually adventurous, policy-based campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He is leaping on issues before the other candidates recognize them, bringing broader perspectives to the debates and building a base of supporters nationwide that could play a significant role in debates about the direction of the Democratic Party. Yet, the political punditocracy steadfastly refuses to treat his candidacy with even a measure of the seriousness that is accorded the other members of the House and Senate who are seeking the party's nod.
But isn't Kucinich, who trails in the polls, simply getting the coverage he deserves? While it is fair to say that Kucinich falls short of front-runner status, the griping by his supporters about media bias against his candidacy has a ring of legitimacy, says John Green, director of the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute.
"It's a legitimate complaint," Green, a veteran observer of the media's impact on political races, told the Akron Beacon-Journal recently. "The media, particularly television, cover elections like horse races," he added, noting that in this horse race television reporters frequently dismiss Kucinich as the "fringe candidate" or the "long-shot candidate."
The absurdity, and the irresponsibility, of most media's approach to Kucinich's candidacy has been particularly evident in recent weeks.
Typically, Kucinich was ahead of the curve on an important issue. In November, he seized on concerns about the reliability of electronic voting machines produced by Diebold Inc., one of the nation's largest voting equipment manufacturers. Those concerns were stirred by the revelation that Diebold employees had expressed concerns in e-mails about the security of machines produced by the company.
Diebold sought to shut down any debate about its machines by threatening legal actions against operators of Web sites that were publishing or linking to corporate documents that detailed flaws in Diebold equipment and irregularities in the certifying of the company's systems for elections.
When he learned of the legal threats, Kucinich took on the politically potent corporation. The Ohio congressman asked House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, and the ranking Democrat on that committee, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, to investigate whether the company's actions were potential abuses of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. He also posted the controversial documents on his congressional Web site.
Diebold quickly backed down. And Kucinich used the development to declare, "In a democracy where half the people don't vote and where the last presidential election was decided by the Supreme Court, we cannot tolerate flawed voting equipment or intimidation of those who point out the flaws. Diebold backing down from its intimidation campaign is a positive step. An open and honest examination of the flaws in electronic voting will lead us to only one possible conclusion: electronic voting machines are dangerous to democracy because there is no way of ensuring their accuracy. We have to have a voter-verified paper trail for every election so that any errors and irregularities caused by the voting machines can be recovered."
All in all, this makes for a meaty story. A presidential candidate takes on a major corporation and wins in a fight over an issue that is fundamental to the functioning of our democracy.
So were there headlines about Kucinich's fight with Diebold? No. Television news reports? No. Lengthy discussions on public radio or commercial talk radio? No.
Indeed, the only story on Kucinich that got extensive coverage last week dealt with the fact that, after Kucinich mentioned in an early November forum that he was a bachelor, more than 80 women contacted a New Hampshire Web site indicating that they wanted to date him.
Kucinich has been a good sport about the whole dating story. And, certainly, there is nothing wrong with major media doing a feature story on this quirky twist of the campaign trail. But there is something very wrong with a scenario in which this is the big story about Kucinich, while the story of his fight against Diebold barely gets notice.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times