NBC Universal Inc. is a major media conglomerate. And major media conglomerates have traditionally been able to police the parameters of presidential politics. Any affront to this order of affairs is a threat to the ability of corporations to define the American discourse.
That's what is at stake as NBC fights to limit the amount of information Nevada Democrats have available to them before they caucuses on Saturday to choose delegates to the Democratic National Convention. So the network has announced that its crack legal team will work through the night to overturn a judge's order that Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich be included in the last pre-caucus debate between the Democratic presidential contenders.
On the day after the New Hampshire primary, when New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was still in the race, Kucinich, Richardson, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards were invited to participate in the debate scheduled to be televised on MSNBC from 9 to 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Debate organizers wanted Richardson in the forum and knew that they could not exclude Kucinich, who was running ahead of the New Mexican in several national polls. So they grudgingly contacted the Kucinich campaign, which participated last week in initial planning discussions for the debate.
But when Richardson dropped out of the race on Thursday, the network yanked the invitation to Kucinich, who has stirred up past forums -- and distinguished himself from Clinton, Obama and Edwards -- by calling for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, advocating for the impeachment of members of the Bush administration, and even discussing the damage done to the political process by media monopolies.
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The Kucinich campaign sued NBC over the network's decision to conduct a closed debate. And Senior Clark County District Court Judge Charles Thompson ruled Monday that the congressman must be allowed to participate. Arguing that Nevada voters -- and, by extension, the Democratic nominating process in which they are playing a high-profile role -- would benefit by hearing from more than just NBC-favored contenders Clinton, Obama and Edwards, Judge Thompson said, "I don't think that just deciding that just three is good enough for the state of Nevada is a legitimate basis (for dropping Kucinich)."
"Had it been established at the beginning that they'll only take the top three for the debates, I wouldn't have any problem enforcing it," the judge explained to NBC's lawyers. "I'm somewhat offended that a legitimate candidate was invited to a debate and then uninvited under circumstances that appear to be that they just decided to exclude him."
How offended? Judge Thompson told the network's lawyers that any move to exclude Kucinich would lead him to issue an injunction to stop the televised debate.
This threat to its ability to police the discourse was an affront that NBC would not let stand. "We disagree with the judge's decision and are filing an appeal," declared Jeremy Gaines, a vice president for MSNBC, who announced that the cable channel's parent network would demand an immediate hearing before the Nevada Supreme Court.
Kucinich's lawyers will battle to preserve Judge Thompson's ruling, and the candidate's right to a participate in the forum. They have fewer resources, but are possessed of one commodity that the broadcast and cable network seem to lack: an understanding that democracy is best served by free and open debate.
© 2008 The Nation