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.