By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Free the candidates from the media consortium

Jill Stein

The media consortium that is sponsoring two gubernatorial debates may exclude Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein because she hasn’t raised enough money, according to the Boston Globe, which is a member of the consortium, and the Boston Herald, which isn’t.

That raises a question: What are debates for?

Let’s start with the obvious. Only one of two things can plausibly occur on Election Day this November. Either Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick will be re-elected or his Republican opponent, Charlie Baker, will beat him. Neither Stein nor independent candidate Tim Cahill is going to win.

Given that, it’s ludicrous to believe that Cahill should be invited because he’s met the fundraising threshold while Stein should stay home. We should hear from both of them — or neither.

My own preference is that everyone be invited, at least when it’s early in the campaign. Give the longshots a chance to make their pitch and force the major-party candidates to react to their ideas. As we get closer to the wire, I think it’s legitimate to use polling in order to exclude candidates with no chance. I’d like to see Baker and Patrick debate one on one, but not yet.

Last Tuesday’s non-consortium debate, expertly moderated by WBZ-TV (Channel 4) political analyst and friend of Media Nation Jon Keller, showed it’s possible to let Baker and Patrick go at it while still giving Stein and Cahill a chance to have their say.

The biggest problem, I think, is the very existence of the consortium, which comprises the Globe, WCVB-TV (Channel 5), WHDH-TV (Channel 7), NECN, WGBH (Channel 2 and 89.7 FM) and WBUR Radio (90.9 FM).

The consortium was formed in 1994 to pressure U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy to debate his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. The gambit worked — and the fumble-mouthed Kennedy’s unexpectedly strong performances were a key to his re-election that year.

These days, though, there is never a shortage of debates. So, rather than a consortium, why not have media and civic organizations put together debates as they please, as Keller and WBZ did? You could have some debates featuring all four and others with just the two major-party candidates. You could even have a Cahill-Stein debate, which would be pretty interesting.

Let each group that wants to sponsor a debate set its own rules. The candidates can decide whether they want to participate, and the public can decide whether it wants to pay attention. But by all means, lets put an end to the media consortium and its attempts to control the political conversation.

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  1. Carly Carioli

    Agreed. I think one way of saying this is: more consortiums. There’s a movement afoot to develop some public-media partnerships (which includes everything from Wgbh-funded folks to public-access stations to non-profit web news folks) that could converge in large enough numbers to sponsor debates. Here’s hoping 2012 is the year that online and indie media get their shit together to claim a seat at the table.

  2. C.E. Stead

    I’ve never understood the aversion to Stein, and Grace Ross before her.

    In a Presidential debate, there is a place for this – there are candidates who don’t qualify for the ballot in all 50 states. But why shouldn’t EVERY candidate who qualified be included within the state? That’s a fairly substantial hurdle in and of itself. This isn’t going away – there will likely be MORE independent/unenrolled candidates in future, and the Libertarians could well make a comeback.

    Fundraising and polls are subjective and irrelevant to the matter at hand – the ideas of the candidates. I would refuse to participate in ANY debate which does not include all four.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: The only caveat I would add is that the hurdles for making it onto the ballot should be substantial enough that they’re meaningful. You say they are. I’m not sure I would agree, but I haven’t seen the rules for a while. Fundraising and polls are not subjective at all, though polls can be wrong. Whether they are irrelevant is another matter. And I think we need to decide this on a race-by-race basis. I don’t see a problem with four, especially since neither Stein and Cahill is an obnoxious nut. But what if there were, oh, seven, or nine, and included a couple of political-cult types who insisted on interrupting every five seconds?

  3. L.K. Collins

    When a consortium begins to act as a cartel, their actions become objectionable.

    All candidates on the ballot for the office which is the subject of the debate should be participants.

    To do otherwise is substituting the wisdom of the cartel for the wisdom of the people.

    Cartels represent their own interests first, no matter how stridently they protest otherwise.

  4. 10,000 qualifying signatures to get on the gubernatorial ballot – meaning you really need 15,000 raw, at least – is a pretty big hurdle. You need hundreds of volunteers spending weeks and weeks – or thousands of dollars to hire signature gatherers – to gain ballot access.
    I’ve always believed that getting on the ballot should be your only criteria to be allowed into a debate.
    I don’t know if more consortiums is the answer. I would guess that there doesn’t need to be consortiums. Have all the media outlets that want to host a debate host a debate. There are seven weeks between Tuesday and the final. Have one debate a week for each TV station and then a few radio debates. Newspapers can send reporters. It’s that simple, really.

  5. Tim McIntire

    Well, if 7 or 9 candidates all had enough support to get the signatures to be on the ballot, we’d have a healthy participatory democracy, and I can’t imagine why anyone would consider that a bad thing.

  6. Bob Gardner

    I would go even further. How relevant is it to debate one opponent? What a governor does is a lot closer to debating in a room with 3 or 4, or 7 or 9 people. Such a debate is probably a better predictor of how someone will really govern.

  7. Aaron Read

    Isn’t it rather obnoxious, or even problematic, that a consortium of solely Boston-based media holds so much sway over a aspect of democracy that impacts the entire state? Why aren’t debates being held on the Cape and the Berkshires? Or in Lowell and Springfield for that matter?

    Perhaps this could, and should, be used to encourage more debates in structures that have been suggested here?

  8. Al Fiantaca

    Seven or nine qualified (meaning on the ballot) candidates may make for better democracy, but having that many in a debate makes for a fractious show, and not very good theater, which is what the broadcast media wants. Even 4 debaters can make a broadcast more difficult, especially when they want to focus on the ones who are the apparent front runners. The problem is how do you fairly handle the logistics of a large slate? That’s an answer I can’t pretend to have.

  9. Michael Pahre

    I find the concept of the consortium having some quantitative requirements reasonable, as opposed to having the sponsoring organization invite or disinvite candidates according to their own whim.

    Remember what happened in the 2008 NH Republican presidential primary when the Fox News Channel sponsored a debate among the candidates? They blocked Ron Paul from attending, even though his fundraising and his polling far surpassed many of the candidates who they did invite (e.g., Rudy Giuliani). It was a statement by FNC of what the Republican Party ought to allow inside its tent — which meant keeping out isolationist libertarians like Paul. The public discourse would have been better served if FNC had followed strict fundraising and polling requirements.

    Even though you can argue forever as to what those specific requirements ought to be, at least set them and let the chips fall as they will.

    I predict: Charlie Baker calls up 60 of his buddies to donate $500 each to Stein’s campaign to push her over the fundraising threshold. It’s in his best interest to get Stein to siphon left-wing votes off of Deval.

    P.S. Ironic that the FNC now seems ready to embrace Paul’s son Rand, and his libertarian ideas, isn’t it?

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