When Ted Koppel steered one of the most critical debates of the Democratic presidential contest toward horserace questions about endorsements, poll positions and fund raising, the host of ABC-TV's Nightline inadvertently created an opening for a serious discussion about one of the most important issues in America today: media policy. And Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich has seized that opening with a vengeance.
Koppel, served as a moderator for last week's debate in New Hampshire between the nine Democrats seeking their party's nomination in 2004. The veteran newsman's decision to focus vast stretches of last week's debate on insider questions about endorsements and polling figures rankled Kucinich, who has for some time objected to the neglect of his candidacy by most media. But he also did something else. By badgering Kucinich, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun with questions that suggested they should drop out of the race, Koppel exposed the dirty little secret of network television journalists who are covering the 2004 contest: They prefer easily described, sound bite-driven contests between a handful of well-known candidates, not wide open contests with lots of candidates and lots of interesting ideas.
Journalists know that covering democracy is costly, and inconvenient. Covering coronations, in contrast, is relatively cheap and undemanding.
By seeming to complain about having to deal with such a large field of candidates, however, and by so clearly indicating which candidates he would like to see leave the competition, Koppel turned attention away from the contenders and toward the question of whether the self-serving calculations of America's television networks are doing damage to America's democracy.
After gently poking Koppel for starting the debate with a round of questions regarding Al Gore's endorsement of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Kucinich suggested that it was wrong to steer the debate toward process questions when fundamental issues -- such as the war in Iraq, trade policy and national health care -- had gone unaddressed. Koppel then came back to Kucinich with a question about whether he, Sharpton and Moseley Braun weren't really "vanity" candidates who would have to drop out because they had not raised as much money as other contenders. That's when the sparks flew.
"I want the American people to see where media takes politics in this country," the Ohio congressman said. "We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls and then talking about money. When you do that you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people."
The crowd at the New Hampshire debate erupted with loud and sustained applause. And Kucinich backers say the response from around the country was equally intense. Indeed, when it was revealed later in the week that ABC had made a formal decision to cut back on its already scant coverage of Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley Braun, activists barraged the network with emails, letters and phone calls protesting the decision. Demonstrations were held outside ABC affiliates. The media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting used Koppel's questions and ABC's decision to cut coverage of Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley Braun to focus attention on the dismal failure of the television networks when it comes to covering serious political issues.
But Kucinich was smart. He did not simply bask in the shows of support and sympathy. Rather, he used the controversy to focus attention on an issue with which he has long been associated: the fight to prevent media conglomerates from dominating the discourse in American political and cultural life. Kucinich, who has worked over the years for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Wall Street Journal newspapers, as well as a Cleveland television station, has for many years been a critic of media consolidation and commercialism. An outspoken critic of last June's moves by the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate controls on media consolidation and monopoly, he has been an ardent backer of efforts by Senator Byron Dorgan ( D-North Dakota), Congressman Bernie Sanders, (I-Vermont), and others in Congress to reverse the FCC rule changes in order to preserve media competition, diversity and local content.
Turning the controversy over Koppel into what the late Senator Paul Wellstone used to refer to as "a teaching moment," Kucinich declared, "The response of the American people to the exchange between Ted Koppel and myself demonstrates that there is great concern about the proper role of the media in a democratic society. The American people clearly do not want the media to be in a position where they're determining which candidates ought to be considered for the presidency and which ought not to be considered for the presidency. Such practice by the media represents a tampering with the political process itself. The role of the media in this process has now become a national issue central to the question of who's running our country, and I intend to keep this issue before the American people, and I look forward to engaging America's news organizations as to what they might be able to do to be more responsive to the public concerns that are reflected in the powerful response to the issues I raised in the exchange with Ted Koppel."
Campaigning in Iowa on Sunday, Kucinich issues a detailed plan for reforming the media in America that called for:
* Breaking up the major media conglomerates in order to encourage competition and quality, as well as diversity. Kucinich wants to limit the number of media outlets one corporation can own in a given medium, such as radio, print, or television. He would also prohibit cross-ownership of newspapers, radio and television in the same market by a single corporation.
* Expansion of funding for public broadcasting channels on television and radio, and expansion of support for community-controlled media, in order to ensure the existence of media outlets that are free of the influence of advertisers.
* Requiring broadcast and cable networks to provide substantial free air time for candidates and parties during election campaigns.
* Opening up the regulatory process so that citizens can more easily challenge the licenses of local broadcast outlets that fail to provide local coverage and to direct coverage at the entire community they are supposed to serve.
* Permitting not-for-profit groups to obtain low-power FM radio station licenses. Kucinich wants to encourage the development of new, community- based, noncommercial broadcasting outlets.
* Withdrawal of the U.S. from the World Trade Organization. Media companies have been lobbying the WTO for the creation of policies that would allow trade sanctions against countries that limit foreign ownership of domestic media, establish standards for local content and fund public broadcasting.
Kucinich even has an anti-sound bite sound bite: "I don't think ABC should be the first primary. The first primary should not be on a television network."
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