Political Expediency, Media, And Democracy

by Eli Beckerman

November 4, 2002

If you talk to any news reporters, there is a consensus that they are not biased. They may have political leanings, but their actual work as reporters is always purely objective. Malarkey.

Consciously and unconsciously, these reporters bend over backwards to mold political thought to their liking. The absolute worst case of this is when it comes to reporting on third party politics, or, as is more often the case, not reporting on third party politics.

The idea that the media -- the sum total of all the small-town and big-market print, radio and television news organizations -- present an objective examination of political happenings is a farce. First, reporting on the issues suffers to the extreme lust for the politics of perception. How a candidate appears on the issues is stuff of gold; how they stand on the issues takes an everlasting back-seat. Second, an institutional, internalized acceptance of two-party politics renders all notions of objectivity meaningless. A system of two parties is not necessarily bankrupt. Ours just happens to be. The greatest alternatives we have at our disposal at the current point in time are third parties.

Of course, there is no great conspiracy by the media and its reporters to exclude third parties and their political platforms from the political discourse. However, the objectivity of the mainstream corporate press, which operates with profits as its ultimate guide, must surely be questioned.

The Boston Globe, for example, has been a fervent supporter of the voter-mandated Clean Elections law in Massachusetts. As far as the Globe is concerned, the Clean Elections law would mean public money finding its way into political print ads, and a greater number of contested elections for public office. Both of these would increase revenue for the Globe, not to speak of the positive effect on circulation that a revitalized democracy would have on the paper. One wonders where the Boston Globe would stand on an election reform law that mandates free air time and newspaper coverage for all ballot-qualified candidates. I suggest to all Libertarians that pushing for free air time for candidates is a noble pursuit if you are concerned about tax dollars subsidizing political campaigns. Personally, I see it as money well-spent if it breaks the stranglehold that moneyed interests have on our government. You could surely kiss corporate welfare goodbye.

But even with the media's vested interests in preserving the corrupt campaign finance system, it would be impossible to convince the nation's army of journalists to be guided by the impact their reporting has on their company's bottom line. I know for a fact that it is not selfish influence-peddling that makes reporters tick. This does not mean, however, that they are above putting their own ideological stamp on all of their work. Unfortunately, as with most Americans, it is a bias towards the two-party system that destroys the objective good will of their coverage. And it is predominantly the lack of meaningful coverage of third parties which does the greatest damage to our democracy. After all, impartiality is shattered if someone who has qualified for the ballot cannot even voice their platform and their visions to an adequate number of voters to have an impact on the political sphere of debate.

In most states, getting on the ballot alone already includes substantial hurdles. I don't even believe that media barriers are uncalled for. If every ballot-qualified candidate got equal coverage, you would have a large majority of voters frustrated with having to distinguish between every Tom, Dick and Harry who has decided to run for office. My problem, and it hurts all voters' interests, is that we the people don't have a say over who gets coverage and who does not. The barriers the corporate media construct are disproportionately large to third party candidates, and even those with impressive grassroots support cannot get heard.

In fact, the mainstream press has overwhelming control over who gets heard and who does not. After all, the conglomerated media makes the decisions about who gets coverage and who gets to debate. Ironically, they usually cite low poll numbers to defend their decisions to exclude ballot-qualified candidates from these very influential and determining forums. But it is their decision to ignore these "fringe" candidates in the first place which leads to their lowly polling results. This one-two combo is the biggest affront to third party supporters that the media launches (talk about passive aggressiveness!), but there are many more. Even reporters who agree with the third party candidate more are loathe to admit this or steer their coverage accordingly. Indeed, it is a crippling fear that they may influence some poor schlub to vote for a third party candidate that governs what they write. The last thing they want to be is complicit in a third party candidate spoiling the race for one of the two major parties.

Which brings me to political expediency. Voting for the lesser of two evils every four years just about guarantees that our choices get worse each time around. I use the cliché with the hope that it will never be used again -- that both the cliché and the actuality will get destroyed by political reform. If every single reporter who ever noted that a third party candidate mirrored his convictions more closely, yet was pushing for the Dem or Pub out of political expediency (under the guise of political pragmatism), simply pushed instead for his ideological favorite, this would single handedly place politics-as-we-know-it on the shelf of American political history.

I am all for pragmatism, and I think voting your conscience no matter what can lead to mistakes. Were the Minnesota Greens wrong for ever challenging the principled and now legendary Senator Paul Wellstone? It is tough to say. It is quite possible that Wellstone's no-vote on the Iraq war would have been a yes-vote if he did not have a Green Party challenge. Wellstone's votes in favor of the USA PATRIOT Act and the Defense of Marriage Act were certainly not the marks of a full-blooded no-compromise progressive. How else are disappointed constituents supposed to hold their representatives' feet to the fire? The real question, however, is what is the ultimate value of a vote for the Green Party's Minnesota Senate candidate? It is difficult to argue that it would help build the state's Green Party, as it seems more likely to anger a boatload of Minnesota liberals and a significant majority of American liberals and progressives alike. The long-term effects of any third party vote must be weighed in evaluating its worth -- anything else would be shortsighted. In the case of the United States Senate in the 2002 midterm elections, third party candidates should proceed with as much caution and foresight as possible.

For every critic of Ralph Nader's Green Party run for the Presidency in 2000, I offer up the suggestion that they have yet to see its long-term effects. If you are reading this article, this in itself is one tiny yet tangible result. I have been forced to look at the overall impact of my vote for and support of Ralph Nader's candidacy. I was forced to question myself -- a relatively comfortable white male -- and ask what right I had to help influence the selection of this very dangerous man who currently occupies the Oval Office. Upon great reflection, I have realized that it is only meaningful if I assign myself a greater civic responsibility than a mere vote every election day. I have realized that we all have responsibilities that far exceed getting to the voting booth every couple of Novembers and launching a few campaign contributions in the mail. And I simply will not be persuaded by people who think otherwise, or reporters who would frame their news reporting to suggest otherwise. If we all realized this, our two-party system might actually be a healthy one. Sadly, our democracy is deathly ill.

Thankfully, the Green Party is a growing force of grassroots, movement-based politics. With far more candidates running this year than ever before, the Green Party is poised to make the nation and the mainstream press rethink their marginalization of the Greens. The results of Nader's run, and all the work that has been poured into building the Green Party locally, nationally, and internationally, is just starting to make itself visible. We are here to stay, we are getting louder, and we are increasingly finding ourselves to be the voice for the politically disaffected and disenfranchised.

To those who believe strongly that voting for third parties, in most cases, is politically ruinous, the most effective way to make your point is to keep an open ear and an open mind -- and to support meaningful democratic reforms. Nobody appreciates being scolded as a political novice, especially not 92-year-old agitator Doris Haddock, known better around the globe as Granny D. And to expect a political force of measurable impact to sit and play nice when their entire platform is outright ignored by the mainstream press is foolhardy and offensive. As Ellen Willis put it best in the March 2001 issue of Dissent Magazine, "The Nader campaign ... was based on the idea that the hegemonic corporatism espoused by the major parties was preventing oppositional ideas from reaching the American people in the first place."

That's not a democracy that I'd fight to defend.

If critics wanted to impart meaning to their hollow spoiler attacks, they would devote their influence and energy into reforms like instant runoff voting. It is nearly always the case that the hypercritics of third-party candidates, who truly represent the hopes and dreams of many disillusioned voters and non-voters, are themselves in a position of power. And they are nearly always silent on robust democratic reforms that would actually lead to empowerment and fair representation in government. To simultaneously ignore the third party platform and excoriate third party supporters for not playing by the accepted rules is ineffective. If their views are welcomed into the dialogue in the first place, the very need to spoil disappears. But as Ralph Nader said, "You can't spoil a system that's rotten to the core."

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Eli Beckerman was born and raised in Queens, NY. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and Wesleyan University, with degrees in Physics and Astronomy. He is currently an astrophysicist and computer specialist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (since June, 1999). Beckerman is a member of The Mystic River Greens (MRG) in Somerville, MA, a group that focuses on Green issues and is affiliated with the Massachusetts Green Party.

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Published November 4, 2002
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