Posted on Tue, Oct. 08, 2002
Peter Delevett: Sometimes, the media hide voters' choices
By Peter Delevett
San Jose Mercury News
I spent part of Monday at a local high school, telling a group of aspiring writers that journalism, at its best, serves a noble purpose. The press can be a voice for the little guy.
Unfortunately, that's not always the case, as the Los Angeles Times reminded us this week.
The Times, which sponsored a Monday debate between Gov. Gray Davis and Republican challenger Bill Simon, turned away the man most polls show running third: Green Party candidate Peter Camejo.
The paper invited only candidates who were backed by at least 15 percent of likely voters. Recent polls place Camejo, an East Bay businessman and activist, between 4 percent and 9 percent.
Here's what really blows my mind: The Times wouldn't even let Camejo into the building.
Simon and Davis were allowed to invite 25 people to the debate. But the Times told Simon he couldn't place Camejo on his list.
``We felt that because Camejo is a candidate, we would apply that same standard whether he was in the building as a guest or not,'' Times spokeswoman Martha Goldstein says.
OK, I'll accept that you have to draw the line somewhere about who can debate -- though a 15 percent threshold seems too high.
But the guy has to be polling 15 percent just to walk in the door?
Aren't newspapers supposed to be about the free exchange of information and ideas?
Kowtowing to Davis
``The role of the media shouldn't be to confine and limit the options for candidates to be heard, but rather to open them up,'' says James Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.
That said, the media can fall down on the job -- sometimes with good intentions.
When the Mercury News has sponsored debates in the past, we've set a polling threshold that a candidate must meet to get in on the action. That may be necessary from a logistical standpoint, but it also narrows the playing field.
Still, ``It's hard to imagine barring someone from the newspaper building,'' says Mercury News publisher Joe Natoli.
Let's not kid ourselves: Simon, who has next to nothing in common with Camejo, was clearly seeking political advantage. Every vote for the liberal Camejo is probably a vote Davis doesn't get.
A Davis spokesman had said the governor might pull out of the event if Camejo were in the audience. And though Goldstein insists that didn't factor in the Times' decision, the paper made itself look like a Davis lapdog, kneecapping its credibility in the process.
Voters deserve better
The real crime is that, this year more than ever, California voters deserve to see alternatives.
Polls show voters are so dissatisfied with Simon and Davis that up to 22 percent are still undecided.
But Camejo, and candidates like him, are in a Catch-22: They can't get coverage if they're not polling high enough, but how will they ever poll high enough without coverage?
The Mercury News, for instance, has mentioned Camejo just 18 times this year, compared with 288 for Simon.
``Our track record shows that when third-party candidates demonstrate enough pull, we cover them adequately,'' says Mercury News Executive Editor David Yarnold. ``Our coverage is going to be proportional to the public interest.''
That's a pragmatic approach to doling out limited resources, but it overlooks the extent to which the media shape the public interest by controlling the information people get.
Pundits expect California voters, dissatisfied with the major party choices, to stay away from the polls in droves next month. And when we in the media wring our hands about that, we ought to look in the mirror.
Peter Delevett's column appears Sunday and Wednesday. If you've got a scoop, e-mail pdelevett@sjmercury. com or call (408) 271-3638. To subscribe to his e-mail dispatch, see www.peterdelevett.com.
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