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CJRColumbia Journalism Review

March/April 1992 | Contents

Opinion

THE PRESS REJECTS A CANDIDATE

by Joshua Meyrowitz
Meyrowitz is a professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire and the author of No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Maria Peralta, a CJR intern, assisted with research for this article.

When a close aide to Czech Communist leader Klement Gottwald was charged with treason and hanged in 1952, the state propaganda apparatus quickly airbrushed the traitor out of all state photographs. Such a crude act is almost unimaginable in a democratic society, but airbrushing of a more sophisticated kind is not entirely unknown.

Take the case of Democratic presidential candidate Larry Agran. The national press almost never reports on his campaign; when his name does apear, he is described as a "dark horse," a "fringe candidate," or "an obscure contender." Agran has been barred from most of the televised debates on the basis of criteria that seem to shift as he tries to meet them. When he is allowed to participate in forums with the "major candidates," he is often left out of news reports of the events or asked by press photographers to step aside. With Catch-22 logic, Agran has been told by news media executives that he has not earned the right to media exposure because, among other things, he has not received enough media exposure.

To be fair to those making such news judgments, much of Agran's dark-horse status derives from his unconventional credentials as a presidential contender. A Harvard Law School graduate and published author who has devoted twenty years to public service, he has never been elected to statewide or national office. He has served for twelve years as an elected official in Irvine, California, America's largest master-planned city. Most national journalists I spoke with dismissed him on the ground that he has held only local office. As Roger Mudd put it in a rare television interview with Agran that aired on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on August 30, 1991: "It does stretch credulity to think that a Jewish ex-mayor of a small suburban California town can make it."

But Agran's supporters -- and a substantial component of the local New Hampshire press reporting on the first-in-the-nation primary -- see more in Agran than do most national journalists. They point out that, as Irvine's first directly elected mayor, Agran initiated progressive programs that received national acclaim. They note that, as executive director of the Center for Innovative Diplomacy, he played a unique role as a "global mayor" who pursued issues of international trade, arms reduction, and human rights, and earned his city a United Nations award for his pioneering legislation to eliminate ozone-depleting compounds -- all from an unlikely base in deeply conservative Orange County. They also point out that, although he has not yet qualified for federal matching funds, he has already met the criteria for getting his name in more than thirty primary and caucus ballots. And they describe him as the presidential contender with the boldest and most specific plan for shifting military spending to domestic needs.

Agran's candidacy presents an interesting case study for press coverage of political campaigns. He has found that to become visible, he has to be disruptive. When he was barred by the chairman of the state Democratic party from a televised health care forum with presidential candidates in Nashua, New Hampshire, for example, he stood up in the audience and demanded to know on what ground he was being excluded. Responding to a signal from a state party official, security police began to remove Agran from the hall, but the crowd's shouts of "Freedom of speech!" and "Let us vote!" embarrassed the men at the dais into inviting him to join them. The confrontation was Agran's first widely reported "campaign event" -- but his innovative proposals for health care reform went unmentioned.

To prevent this sort of thing from happening again, the next state Democratic party debate was moved to a high-security TV studio with no audience. Agran stood outside the studio, among a crowd of four hundred people who were protesting the exclusion of their candidates from the debates. As reported in the local press, the protest offered many dramatic moments, with the "major" candidates forced to pass "picket lines for democracy" as protestors shouted "Scab! Scab! Scab!" yet perhaps because there was no violence, the protest went unreported in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The dozens of local newspaper articles, editorials, columns, and letters to the editor that have described Agran's exclusion and/or supported his right to be heard in national debates, have made little dent on national coverage. Reporters and editors at several national newspapers and magazines with whom I spoke explained that the longer one has not covered a candidate, the harder it becomes to do so. "The obvious question in such situations," said Alvin Sanoff, a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, "is, Where have you been that you just discovered this person?" He also noted that "it's always safer to stay with the pack and be wrong than to risk going out on a limb and covering someone who then turns out to be not that important."

Seeing that local press coverage and protests had no impact on the national media, Agran's campaign staff became convinced that his status as a "fringe" candidate could be erased if he tied or passed one or more of the "major" candidates in the polls. They were wrong.

When a January 22 poll conducted by the American Research Group showed Agran tied with former California Governor Jerry Brown and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, the AP reported this finding two-thirds of the way through a story. When a follow-up ARG poll showed Agran doubling his support and moving ahead of Brown, the AP incorrectly referred to it as Agran's "first measurable showing." When the next ARG poll continued to show Agran ahead of Brown, ABC's World News Sunday -- perhaps to sidestep the problem of explaining the identity of a candidate they had not been covering -- reported on the poll by skipping all mention of Agran and moving directly from Harkin to Brown. Other news organizations solved the problem by reporting only on the top three names. ARG pollster Dick Bennett says that had Agran's surprise strength in the polls been played up by news organizations the result might well have been a further rise in the polls. Instead, "the press completely ignored the story, and he began to sink."

Agran's unusual appearance with four of the so-called major candidates at the U.S. Conference of Mayors led to the first significant mention of his campaign in The New York Times. In a Jauary 24 article, Richard Berke noted that, after listening to the candidates, "dozens of Mayors . . . seemed to agree on one thing: the single candidate who truly understands urban needs is Larry Agran." Yet none of the TV news reports I saw on the conference even mentioned that Agran was there.

Similarly, when Agran participated with the "major" candidates in the Global Warming Leadership Forum in Tallahassee on February 1-2, the audience "was more enthusiastic about Larry Agran than about Bill Clinton," says Carole Florman, organizer of the conference. But the major news organizations covering the event -- ABC, CBS, and the AP -- omitted all mention of Agran in their reports.

Most of the national journalists I spoke with expressed little surprise over the press treatment Agran has been receiving, and they offered similar explanations for it. Tom Rosenstiel, for example, who is based in Washington and writes on media and politics for the Los Angeles Times, suggests there are several reasons. For one thing, political reporters tend to cover those candidates the party professionals tell them are the "major" candidates. Reporters ask pols, what are you hearing? Who is lining up endorsements? Who is doing fundraisers for whom? This year, especially, Rosenstiel says, "the last thing the Democratic leaders want is to have attention paid to someone like Larry Agran, which would reinforce the impression that they are putting forward a 'field of unknowns.'"

Secondly, says Rosenstiel, it is difficult and confusing and expensive for the media to have to contend with a lot of candidates. "Journalists don't sit around in newsrooms asking, 'Whom else should we cover?' The big question is 'Whom can we stop covering?'" Ultimately, Rosenstiel notes, "If journalists think someone is not likely to win, then we don't think of them as someone to devote much time to."

Jeff Cohen, executive director of FAIR, a New York-based media watchdog group, argues that "it's not up to the media to determine whom we get to hear and whom we don't. That's not reporting, it's censorship." He notes that "the media have made Agran a reverse Zelig. He's clearly at the right places at the right time, and they excise him from the picture."

Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy, who recently pressed for Agran's inclusion in televised debates, agrees with Cohen. He expresses disgust with the "incestuous" relationships between the media and party elites. "A major abuse in the media is not what we slant the news, but that we can arbitrarily choose the news. The Agran blackout exemplifies that this is a journalistic crime easily gotten away with. Who is going to report it? Not the criminals, for sure."

GRAPHIC: Picture, A rare glimpse of Agran on national television: the candidate showed up on CNN at a Democratic party Unity Dinner in September, with Paul Tsongas, Tom Harkin, and Bill Clinton. (In an AP photo of the same encounter -- picked up by The New York Times -- Agran was nowhere to be seen.)