A quick glance at the Monday morning highlights of the Democratic candidate debate, last night, might lead one to think that there were only three Democrats running for President: Edwards, Clinton and Obama. In fact, there are eight (e.g., also...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 06/04/2007

A quick glance at the Monday morning highlights  of the Democratic candidate debate, last night, might lead one to think that there were only three Democrats running for President:  Edwards, Clinton and Obama.  In fact, there are eight (e.g., also Biden, Gravel, Kucinich, Richardson, Dodd), but it seems that CNN sought to stage the debates in such a way that the camera shot could frame the top three and crop out the rest.

This raises an interesting question about the ethics of media intrusion into America's electoral process. Whether or not a candidacy truly has the money, organization and charisma to win a nomination and be elected, should private media corporations have the right to weed out candidates they decide are not going to win?  In other words,  once a candidate fills out petitions, gets him/herself on the ballot and legally enters a campaign--presidential or otherwise--should a private corporation have the power to, effectively, cut that candidate out of a debate?  Should editorial or business meetings in private boardrooms have the power to declare a candidacy over?

The Power To Crop The Field
Like the ability to crop out unwanted portions of a picture, last night's debate showed that CNN had the power to, effectively, crop 5 candidates out of the picture of the Democratic primary.  Sure, the "bottom 5"  candidates were on the stage and they got questions, but time after time the camera pulled back to a tight shot of Edwards, Clinton and Obama as Wolff Blitzer led those three candidates to challenge each other on touch questions. 

Gravel, Dodd, Richardson, Biden and Kucinich spent most of the evening trying to push their way into what was structured visually as a three way conversation at center stage.

One wonders if CNN should have this power--the power to decide that, despite there not having been even one primary or caucus, certain Democratic candidates for President are simply not as important as others.

There is no place in our constitution, for example, where the framers gave to the free and independent press the power to choose primary candidates on behalf of the people.  Not in there.  Nor is there any amendment stating that, in a situation where there are many candidates for president, privately owned broadcast media shall narrow down the field on behalf of the public.  That's not in there either.

So why does it happen and why isn't there more of an outcry this morning about the way CNN so arrogantly decided that it was bored with a field of eight Democrats and was ready--all on its own--to move on to a field of three?

Primary Impatience
In many ways, it seems that eight years of rule under George W. Bush has dramatically undervalued the presidential primary season.  Instead of being interested in the conversation about political issues and ideas that unfolds between a broad field of candidates and their supporters. 

CNN's pre-debate coverage seemed particularly clueless about the value of this conversation--eager to tell CNN viewers that there really was not point in listening to the actual debate of ideas between the Democratic candidates because their positions were all "the same" anyway.  This idea that Democrats were all the same on the issues was tossed out as truth,  remarkably, by pundits on the left and the right.  Here's political consultant  Robert Zimmerman voicing the idea:

ZIMMERMAN: It goes back to the point we talked about in the beginning of the program -- and I believe this very deeply -- with all of the Democrats relatively holding the holding the same positions on most of the key issues, what it will come down to in these early contests is which candidate can prove they can deliver, either by their record, or which candidate can prove they really have a vision for the future. And that's going to be a tough scrutiny, but that's what I think voters in this state, in particular are going to look for: Who can deliver?

(CNN transcript from Lexis-Nexis)

And here's journalist Michael Goodman saying something similar, albeit with a more partisan bent:

GOODWIN: But I think -- just before the break, Robert said they all have more or less the same positions. I think that does not speak well of the Democratic Party. I think that's a weakness of the party, not a strength.

I would like to see them be a little tougher on each other, distinguish themselves on substantive issues, and not just all kind of be in a herd mentality on the major issues.

(CNN transcript from Lexis-Nexis)

All Democratic candidate positions are essentially the same?  Sure they are--unless you remember that the field includes Mike Gravel, who advocates for a direct form of participatory democracy--unless you remember that the field includes Dennis Kucinich,  who advocates single-payer not-for-profit universal health care--unless you remember that the field  includes Bill Richardson, who advocates protecting the right to bear arms--unless you remember that the field includes Joe Biden--who advocates the division of Iraq into three parts--unless you remember that the field includes Chris Dodd, who discusses passionately the value of learning foreign language in American education.

Are the Dems all the same on ideas and issues?   Not a chance--not a chance!

What seems to be happening in the big media--CNN and elsewhere--is a mounting impatience for any discussion of actual ideas amongst  Presidential candidates.   The current cohort of big media pundits has lost patience with actually listening to and making sense of the conversation that  makes up the primary.  Instead, they are pushing for the simplicity of the inevitable two-party slap fight that will be the Presidential race.  Slap!  Slap! Slap!  Liar!  Traitor!  Hate the troops!  Support the troops!  Weak on defense!  Illegal immigrants!  Culture of corruption!  We all see it coming.  The actual president election is not going to be very subtle. 

A Primary Is Real America
By cropping out the candidates that bore them or who them deem not worth of a spot at the center of the shot, CNN effectively spits on one of the greatest traditions in American democracy:  ground-level deliberative process whereby our future leaders start out as potential leaders who must first convince a room of citizens. 

Our entire constitutional system is rooted in this system of deliberative democracy.  It is fantastic that CNN managed to put some citizens in the room for the New Hampshire debate, but it is unfortunate that they have taken it upon themselves to crop out more than half the field from the picture.

Of course, this is in no way a partisan problem.  I have every suspicion that CNN will try to do the same cropping for the large Republican field of candidates,  too.  No doubt we will see Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney at the center of our screens, while the seven remaining candidates  remain out of shot--eliminated not by the process of citizens deliberating, but by the decision of CNN's news production staff.

It is by no means an easy puzzle to solve--the puzzle whereby CNN and America's other outlets must craft a debate performance that is compelling to watch and brings the full range of the primary experience to our television screens.  But here is a newsflash for America's multi-billion dollar news business:  it's your job to spend some of the money you make to solve that puzzle.

So "kudos!"  to Wolff Blitzer for showing America what it looks like when a TV journalists tries to ask good questions.  But "boo!" to the executive producers at CNN who think they alone have the power to crop America's presidential candidates out of the picture.

Making those choices is not the job of the media.

It's the job of the people.

© 2007 Jeffrey Feldman,  Frameshop

© Jeffrey Feldman 2007, Frameshop

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