Third-party blind spot

Democracy suffers when the news media ignore long-shot candidates and the ideas they espouse

November 20, 2008|By John F. Kirch

While the news media did an effective job this year of covering the presidential campaign between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, the press still has a major blind spot when it comes to writing about third-party contenders.

According to a basic LexisNexis database search of election coverage from Aug. 5 to Nov. 5, The Washington Post and The New York Times published a combined 3,576 news stories, editorials, op-eds, photographs and letters to the editor about Mr. Obama and 3,205 items about Mr. McCain. By contrast, the two dailies published only 36 items about independent Ralph Nader, 22 about Libertarian Bob Barr, five about Green Cynthia McKinney and three about the Constitution Party's Chuck Baldwin.

The Baltimore Sun was not much better, publishing 384 news items about Mr. Obama, 327 about Mr. McCain, eight about Mr. Nader, four on Mr. Barr and two each for Ms. McKinney and Mr. Baldwin.

None of these candidates garnered more than 2 percent of the popular vote on Election Day. But how third-party candidates are covered by the news media is an important issue that should be taken more seriously, given that we live in a democratic society that proclaims deference to the First Amendment and honors the notion that we are all better off when a wide range of proposals are aired.

The news media are allowing themselves to be co-opted by the Democrats and Republicans into viewing campaigns solely through the prism of the two-party system. This means that the major parties control which issues are permitted into the debate, thus denying the public a chance to hear proposals that might seem extreme today but could gain traction in the future if only voters had an opportunity to consider them more seriously. Remember, third parties have been the catalyst for many reforms throughout American history, including the abolition of slavery, tough child-labor laws, free public education, strong business regulations, direct election of senators and women's suffrage.

By including more substantive coverage of third-party candidates, the press could help open the door to innovative alternatives to old issues. It might force the two major candidates to come off message more often and eventually adopt the new ideas pushed by otherwise marginalized candidates, much like the Republican Party did when it absorbed some of Ross Perot's proposals after the 1992 election.

Part of the reason that the news media ignore most third-party candidates is that most journalists tend to view campaigns almost exclusively as a contest of winners and losers. The criteria by which journalists judge candidates play to the strengths of the major parties and set up a no-win situation for all other contenders: Third-party candidates are not covered because they do not demonstrate public support, but they cannot gain public support because they are not covered by the news media.

In addition, viewing campaigns mostly as a "contest" is a mistake, because numerous political science studies conducted over the past 50 years strongly suggest that campaigns actually have little impact on election results.

Where campaigns really matter is in their ability to educate the public about new ideas. Studies have shown that while voters don't always remember the specific policy proposals of each candidate when they go to the ballot box, they nevertheless learn enough during the course of a campaign to make sound judgments about which path the country should take.

What this tells us is that campaigns are about more than just the horse race. They are a time in the nation's political life cycle when voters consider the problems facing the country and look for a wide range of solutions. Including minor-party candidates in this debate could infuse new ways of looking at old issues, challenge basic political assumptions and create avenues for new movements to challenge the hegemony of the Democrats and Republicans.

John F. Kirch is an adjunct professor of journalism at Towson University and the University of Maryland. His e-mail is

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