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The New York Times

Update: NBC Fights to Keep Kucinich Out of Debate

Brian Stelter

Updated | 6:11 p.m. One hour after the Supreme Court hearing was scheduled to conclude and three hours before the debate was expected to begin, the court had yet to announce a decision, leaving it unclear whether Mr. Kucinich would participate in the debate.

4:13 p.m. MSNBC continues to promote tonight's Democratic presidential candidate debate, while the cable news network's parent company awaits a ruling from the Nevada Supreme Court that will determine whether the forum may proceed without Dennis Kucinich.

On Monday, prompted by Mr. Kucinich's request for a temporary restraining order against NBC Universal, Nevada district court judge Charles Thompson issued an injunction stating that MSNBC could not proceed with the debate unless Mr. Kucinich was included.

In a petition to the state's supreme court on Tuesday morning, NBC Universal requested an emergency hearing to review and vacate the judge's injunction. Oral arguments were scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Eastern in Las Vegas. The hearing will last for 30 minutes.

The debate is scheduled to be shown on MSNBC at 9 p.m. Eastern. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are expected to attend.

In his ruling, Mr. Thompson found NBC to be in breach of contract because Mr. Kucinich was invited to the debate on Jan. 9, only to be disinvited shortly thereafter.

What changed? On Jan. 10, after two other Democratic candidates dropped out of the race, NBC revised its qualifying criteria for debate participants, requiring that invited candidates must have finished in the top three in either the Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary.

The revisions were "in no way designed to exclude any particular candidate based on his or her views," wrote Chuck Todd, the political director for NBC News, in an affidavit to the Nevada Supreme Court. Instead, it represented "a good faith editorial choice of a privately-owned cable network to limit debate participants based on the status of their campaigns."

Mr. Kucinich's complaint argued that, without the inclusion of all "credible candidates," the telecast would be "effectively an endorsement of the candidates selected by NBC" instead of an actual debate. He cited the public interest provisions of the Federal Communications Act of 1934.

Responding on Tuesday morning, attorneys for NBC Universal argued that state district courts lack the jurisdiction to decide complaints brought under the act "because exclusive jurisdiction resides with the Federal Communications Commission." The attorneys also argued that because MSNBC is privately owned by General Electric the news network should be allowed to "proceed with tonight's debate under the format chosen as part of its journalistic discretion."

On MSNBC's newscasts Tuesday, Mr. Kucinich's complaints were referenced in passing.

"It won't stop the debate. They'll let Kucinich go on if they have to," the host Joe Scarborough stated, before positioning the debate as a "fight night" in Las Vegas.

David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, noted that the state's previous Democratic debate, hosted by CNN on Nov. 15, included every candidate except for Mike Gravel.

"These situations create a real catch 22 for the candidates," Mr. Damore said. "They don't have much support, and they say they can't get the support because the media won't cover them. It creates a nasty circle for them."

Mr. Kucinich has received 3 to 4 percent support in recent polls of likely Nevada caucus voters.

The flap was also the subject of discussion on the ABC daytime talk show "The View" Tuesday morning.

"What's more surprising to me is that no one is screaming about the fact that people are trying to keep candidates out of these television debates," the co-host Whoopi Goldberg said. "I thought it wasn't until you had the nominee did everybody not have a shot."

Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck agreed, saying: "We deserve as the citizens here to hear everyone. If someone thinks he's going to stir the pot and cause problems, we should see how these candidates deal with that. I want to see them dealing with Kucinich and his questions and ideas. I think that's fair."

Mr. Kucinich, widely considered a long-shot candidate, was also excluded from an ABC debate in New Hampshire earlier in the month.

© 2008 The New York Times

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