How the media makes a circus of the election (or why people think I like Nader)

Originally published on October 9, 2008, in the Washington Square News:

Media, get over yourself and cover third parties

Damon Beres

After last week’s vice-presidential debate, I was overcome with a most distinct, unsettling sense of foreboding, as if the Earth could crack in twain come Election Day, the maw of Satan himself swallowing civilization as we know it in a brilliant flash of uproarious hellfire. And the media would be content to let it happen.

It’s easy enough to recall the awful rhetoric spewed forth from each candidate. For those that didn’t bother sitting through the ordeal (most college students I know turned the event into a drinking game, presumably to make it bearable), major news outlets have reported on it ad nauseam, many offering simple pages of choice quotes. While Gov. Sarah Palin, always the easy target, spoke almost exclusively in nonanswers that were barely even comprehensible, Sen. Joe Biden also had a number of slipups. When asked about the causes of climate change, he answered “We know what the cause is. The cause is man-made. That’s the cause. That’s why the polar ice cap is melting.” Just thinking about it has me reaching for the shot glass.

Though both candidates might fairly be described as incompetent or bumbling, the media circus continues. A mere two days after last Thursday’s debate, a number of news websites and publications prominently ran a nonstory about Sarah Palin’s absurd assertion that Sen. Barack Obama is “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” Why are we giving this blundering harpy so much attention?

Perhaps it’s time for the media to get over itself and report on the Ralph Naders and Bob Barrs of the world. Press coverage of third party candidates for this year’s election has been scant. Big news just hit from Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest newspaper, that Nader will be campaigning in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Fargo, N.D., this weekend, complete with a requisite book signing at an exalted Holiday Inn. Scintillating! Liberty Maven, a Libertarian website, recently ran an article with the blistering headline, “Supreme Court Tells Bob Barr To Go Away, Forget Louisiana.” These articles don’t even top the Google search results page for their respective candidates.

Granted, what third party candidate really has any sort of chance to claim the White House this election? However, to what extent is the media responsible for this? Between August and December 1996, media coverage of Ross Perot reached a fever pitch; a search on the handy LexisNexis database recovers well over 1,000 Perot-related articles from publications and wire services during this period. Searching within that same time frame in 2008 for Ralph Nader recovers significantly fewer results, even when including blogs. One could probably make the case that they are equal in terms of notoriety, especially after the (arguable) impact that Nader had on the 2000 election, but in a time when candidates cultivate fame using exciting buzzwords, internet memes and breasts, the media seems altogether disinterested in digging deeper.

Regardless of the potential effect media coverage would have on the election results, it would still be reassuring to know that the American public has access to as much information as possible. The New York Times’ “Election Guide 2008” only lists information on Obama and McCain, forcing any interested parties to look elsewhere for a truly comprehensive road map to this year’s presidential race. The problem is that one doesn’t really exist.

The best article on this zoo of an election I’ve come across ran under the headline “Please Keep Your Voice Down, My Poor Retarded Child Is Sleeping.” It’s an opinion piece written from the perspective of Sarah Palin that ran in The Onion. It accurately represents the sheer lunacy of this race and lampoons all that the media seems to care about: latching onto incendiary yet worthless aspects of our main candidates for the sake of pulling in readers. Why not try to educate them for once?

Damon is deputy opinion editor. E-mail responses to dberes@nyunews.com.

Some choice comments from readers on the website that I thought brought up interesting points:

So, the MEDIA is the reason I’m a Democrat and not a Libertarian? Did you ever think that, perhaps, third party candidates aren’t given much attention because most people do not agree with their platforms? Certainly, if one of these fringe party candidates had a platform that was intelligent and palatable for the general public, then perhaps they would gain more recognition?

What about the American Labor party? They made HUGE gains at the time when their platform was most relevant to the voters. What about the Socialist Party…even in the US?

The minute Ralph Nader says anything remotely intelligent, maybe I’ll pay more attention.

— Gerry

Money has a lot to do with it. That is a big reason why Ross Perot got a lot of attention. People tend to support candidates have more money just because they think they will use more of their own money then others. Michael Bloomberg could run for president.

But that puts populist candidates in a rough spot because many of those don’t want corporate money like the Democrats and Republicans. I don’t blame the Democrats though. They had to play catch up to the Republicans who were bought out first by the corporations. But now you have to sellout to corporate interests to get elected. We need election reform, but sadly neither of the two parties would do it.

— Jason

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