Politics

Give Brats a Chance

… or how to revive democracy and feed reporters’ egos at the same time! The coming race for Barbara Boxer’s California Senate seat could be a fabulous free for all — maybe not the 150 candidate gubernatorial recall extravaganza eventually won by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003, but still exciting: Dozens of ambitious citizens slugging it out in a “jungle primary,” with the top two vote-getters then facing off in November, 2016. Villaraigosa, Becerra, Tauscher, Speier, Sanchez, Schiff, Bass, Swearengin, K. Johnson. And those are just some of the insiders who might run, not the outsiders (Rob Lowe! Go!).

Fun, fun fun. Unless, of course, reporters decide — as they already seem to be deciding — that state Attorney General Kamala Harris and billionaire Tom Steyer are the only candidates with a chance, and therefore the only candidates worth covering. (Steyer is ‘viable,’ in part,  because he managed to waste millions failing to elect green candidates in 2014.) Thus L.A. Times veteran political writer Mark Z. Barabak tweets

For all the predictions of crowded US Senate field in California, most likely 2, 3 viable contenders, max. Rest oddities/sideshow.

Journalists love to publicly complain about the influence of money in politics — it’s one of those safe causes that doesn’t compromise your objectivity.  But when it comes time to campaign, journalists do the donors’ dirty work for them by refusing to cover candidates who aren’t backed by lots of money.  Those candidates are deemed “non-viable” oddities and not worth telling voters about.

There’s no excuse for this: 1) It’s a self-fulfilling prediction. Of course fringe or underfunded candidates won’t be ‘viable’ if they can’t get press (“free media”) to catch the voters’ attention; 2) Even if long-shot candidates stay on the fringe, covering them would have entertainment value. Newspapers cover obscure TV stars these days. Political candidates are often — I’d say, usually — more colorful than actors. The premature winnowing by self-satisfied journalistic pros drains democracy of much of its exuberance, presenting voters with a sharply limited array of options. No wonder they feel alienated. Then the pros scold them for low turnout.

I was a non-viable candidate once — in 2010, I got my 65 signatures and ran against Boxer. What the hell. But there was a third candidate in the race, a man named Brian Quintana. A year earlier, when he was just a private citizen, the LAT had actually deemed him newsworthy enough to publish a full length take down. But when he actually ran for office — well, then suddenly he apparently wasn’t interesting enough to cover at all. The Times wouldn’t want to waste readers’ time by writing about him. (He still beat me, finishing 2d.)

It’s tempting to think journalists, or at least their egos, actively relish their role as the gatekeepers between ambitious would-be pols and the uninformed voters. After all, what smart, plugged-in reporter would want to spend his time covering a longshot “oddity” candidate the reporter knows doesn’t have a prayer? If journalists have some sort of duty to cover everyone — well, that would put the candidates in charge, not the reporters.  Can’t have that. We’re not their PR men!

But why don’t reporters exercise their egos by promoting the obscure candidates they like, giving their events and speeches extra play,  trying to “break” them the way ambitious DJs try to “break” struggling singers (or the way Time magazine promoted Wendell Willkie)? Reporters could be self-appointed kingmakers.. It might not be fair — if the LAT reporter didn’t take a liking to you, you’d be sunk. But a blatantly ‘kingmaking’ press culture would still be better than the current brutal, clinical triage. At least there’d be a decent chance for an underfunded lightning strike with the electorate.

In effect, the ‘viable’ candidates would be a) whoever is deemed ‘viable’ under current criteria and b) whomever the major reporters decide to push. (A) + (B) beats just (A).

Dave Brat was once a longshot “oddity,” remember. Now he’s in Congress and Eric Cantor, whom he beat, is fighting to get linked on RealClearPolitics. There may be other Dave Brats out there, on the left and the right — if only journalists would give them a chance.**

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** David Drucker, Washington Examiner‘s excellent political reporter, says “I’m all for sideshows if they actually have a base of support (ie. voters) and the money & resources to back it up.” And how do they get that base of support without coverage? Drucker tweets that longshot candidates “who catch fire do so regardless of press – especially cuz of Internet.” Hmm. Mighty convenient to have the internet out there to do the tedious work (publicizing the unpublicized) that journalists won’t do!  But of course the argument is too neat: there will be plenty of candidates who won’t ‘catch fire’ on the internet but who might catch fire if the print and broadcast press covered their campaign stunts.