Nation & World

Commentary: America cheated by TV's failure to cover third parties

As far as television news is concerned, Bob Barr and Ralph Nader aren't presidential candidates but faces on milk cartons. Nader, an independent, and Barr, a Libertarian, are both on the ballot in 45 states. What they aren't on: TV. The lefty media critics at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting issued a study Tuesday that says the three broadcast-network news divisions -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- have mentioned Barr and Nader a total of 31 times all year along. (In poor Nader's case, two of the mentions came when he was the punchline in jokes by late-night comedians that were included in newscasts.)

The study, which also mentions two lesser third-party candidacies (the Green Party's Cynthia McKinney and the Constition Party's Chuck Baldwin, notes that the traditional network explanation for excluding everybody but Republicans and Democrats -- that they won't attract enough votes to make a difference -- "makes this outcome more or less a self-fulfilling prophecy." That's a fair point, though I'm not sure it's entirely correct: Until the bottom dropped out of the economy a few weeks ago, the election looked close and it's entirely conceivable that Nader or Barr could deprived one of the candidates of victory, as Nader arguably did to Al Gore in 2000.

But FAIR raises another argument that deserves even greater consideration -- that elections should be about ideas, and Barr and Nader would have injected some. The intellectual exhaustion of Barack Obama and John McCain was painfully obvious during their three televised debates. McCain is against waste in the Defense Department! (As if Obama favors it.) Obama wants to kill Osama bin Laden! (As if McCain doesn't.) They're both against Wall Street greed! (But Main Street, where all those homebuyers thought they could get houses for no money down and low monthly payments, is Virtue itself.)

Whether or not you believe in the abrupt and unilateral withdrawal of American troops from Iraq (as both Barr and Nader do), or the abolition of the Federal Reserve (as Barr does) or allowing the public to write laws through national referendums (as Nader does), these are ideas that would sharpen the focus of the campaign. As Obama and McCain argued about who supposedly squawked about Freddie and Fannie first, or who could offer more subsidies to failing banks, wouldn't it have been nice to hear from two candidates who were against spending a single nickle on the bailout?

"By ignoring independent and third party candidates," the FAIR study concludes, "the corporate media are also helping keep a range of policy options about key issues that are not espoused by either major party candidate off the table -- including single payer healthcare, a full withdrawal from Iraq, ending the war in Afghanistan and ending the death penalty." The corporate part of that is a silly leftist trope -- this blog you're reading right now is a product of the "corporate media," and I'm obviously not trying to keep this off the table -- but otherwise the conclusion is a fair one. This election might have been more productive, and certainly more interesting, if television news had looked at the milk-carton candidates a little bit more.

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