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The media shouldn’t decide who gets to be president

Heath Haussamen

Though he has a strong résumé, ideas about how to fix America, and a penchant for being brutally honest, Gary Johnson’s presidential campaign is dead simply because the mainstream media decided he couldn’t win

The mainstream media’s successful efforts to shut down the presidential campaign of former N.M. Gov. Gary Johnson are outrageous.

I’ve been angry for months about the media’s subjective judging of who is and who isn’t a serious presidential candidate and how it has destroyed the hopes of a candidate who should have been credible.

It’s not because I have a high opinion of Johnson or want him to be president. It’s because I believe voters should get to decide whether to take Johnson seriously. Instead, the media has made that decision for them.

GQ’s recent profile of Johnson illustrates how it happened:

“Okay, so maybe it’s fairly easy for the mainstream media, and even the weirdstream media, to write Gary Johnson off. He doesn’t fit the script. Not any script. But as Gary would ask, how successful has the script been? In fact, the Gary Johnson story is about a lot more than a highly unusual candidate. It’s also a window into the arbitrary, screwed-up way we pick our candidates. Or rather, the way a small number of major media outlets — rather than the voting public — decree who the ‘legitimate’ candidates will be.”

“It’s hard to put too fine a point on the ‘unintended consequences’ (one of Johnson’s favorite phrases) of CNN’s decision in June not to invite Gary Johnson to its debate, the second of the Republican primary campaign. He was just picking up some steam, having turned in a very respectable performance in the first debate in May, hosted by Fox. At least enough to make people say, Who is this guy? ‘Then I got hosed,’ as Gary puts it.”

“…It wasn’t just that CNN chose not to invite a widely respected two-term governor who’d officially declared his candidacy ahead of everyone else and had a PAC (Our America) and a serious campaign committee up and running. The network invited Sarah Palin (who has yet to announce and may never), as well as Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee, both of whom announced that they weren’t running in the weeks before the debate. CNN says the invitation list was based entirely on who was polling at least 2 percent in three polls they used as a basis — and that Huckabee and Trump were invited before they dropped out. (And Palin? That was just wishful thinking.)”

Things went downhill from there. Other media outlets followed CNN’s lead, and Johnson raised only $180,000 to Mitt Romney’s $18 million during the fundraising quarter that ended June 30. We may never know whether Johnson’s inability to fundraise was due to his own weakness or the media’s shutting his campaign down.

A media-orchestrated circus

At a time when America’s economy remains on the brink, and many on the right believe the size of the federal government is one of the main problems, Johnson is a true fiscal conservative, a libertarian who has tangible ideas for balancing the budget and healing our economy. He’s anxious to discuss them with anyone. But he can’t get most mainstream media outlets to pay attention to him.


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What we get instead is a media-orchestrated circus in which Mitt Romney and Rick Perry duke it out while Chris Christie teases and candidates answer mostly superficial questions with largely superficial answers. The only real attention the mainstream media has given Johnson came because of a catchy one-liner that fed the circus, not because of his ideas for fixing our country.

And even in covering Johnson’s insult of Obama, some in the mainstream media called him a candidate who isn’t credible.

At a time when the nation needs leaders who are willing to take the political hit of proposing unpopular solutions to America’s problems, we have in Johnson a candidate with a strong résumé and a penchant for being brutally honest.

But most people didn’t even know he was running for president until he agreed to play the mainstream media’s game with a joke about dog crap.

Why has the media sought to shut Johnson’s campaign down? For starters Johnson proposes, in a more articulate way than the media-anointed token libertarian candidate (Ron Paul), dramatic changes in the way government operates. He threatens to shake up the status quo. Lots of people get rich off the status quo.

It also appears to be because Johnson is socially liberal. The media seems to have decided that a guy who favors legalizing drugs, keeping abortion legal and allowing gay marriage can’t win a GOP primary, so he’s not worth covering.

Diversity of opinion is healthy

The Washington Post forgot to mention Johnson as a candidate in one article on the GOP primary in May, but came back with a short posting apologizing and calling Johnson a “legitimate and serious candidate.”

It was a hollow apology. Within days, another Post article stated that Johnson was “expected to have little-to-no influence on the identity of the eventual (GOP) nominee.” Then another article just before the CNN debate labeled Johnson “a fringe player, at best, in this debate and the race.”

The problem isn’t just CNN and The Washington Post. Virtually all mainstream media organizations with the ability to reach significant numbers of voters decided that Johnson wasn’t serious before voters had an opportunity to make that decision. Though Fox included Johnson in its most recent debate, it did so based on his barely meeting polling criteria in a decision that was almost as arbitrary as CNN’s.

When we’re talking about a requirement that a candidate poll at 1 or 2 percent, we’re really talking about an excuse to do what you want. That’s within the margin of error of any poll.

To be fair, I make decisions when I’m covering elections about who is a serious candidate and who is not. I do that mainly to decide where to spend my time and energy. And I do believe there should be some criteria for being invited to a presidential debate.

But Johnson has better credentials to be part of the debate than some others the mainstream media has allowed to partake in the circus, such as Donald Trump (and arguably Sarah Palin). At times Johnson has polled better than others allowed into debates.

When I decide that someone probably isn’t a serious candidate, I may write fewer articles about him or her, but I send the same questionnaires that I send the other candidates and provide the same opportunity to schedule interviews for profile articles. Those are my equivalents of hosting a debate.

For example, you’ll see responses from all four Las Cruces mayoral candidates in an article later this week to questions I asked about growth and development. There’s one candidate I could have justified excluding if I was looking for a reason to do so.

But all four candidates have filed declarations of their candidacies and are campaigning. Why exclude any? Isn’t a diversity of opinion in the debate about how to improve our society a healthy part of democracy?

Facilitator of the conversation

I believe that voters, not the media, should decide who gets to be president. I’ve spoken out against newspaper endorsements in the past. NMPolitics.net doesn’t endorse candidates because I believe media endorsements are an attempt to exert undue influence over voters.

Deciding which presidential candidates are legitimate based on policy views and excluding those deemed un-credible is similarly offensive. The media should instead be seeking to empower voters by providing information and facilitating serious debate.

Candidates with policy views outside the mainstream of their parties occasionally do have a chance at being credible, and Johnson might have been one of those candidates. He argues that most of America is socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and he’s probably right.

Regardless, Johnson would add something significant to the conversation about the future of America if the media allowed him to do so. The media should facilitate that conversation, not exclude certain candidates because of their policy views and orchestrate circus shows starring the others.

America has serious problems. It needs serious leaders from across the political spectrum to rise to the challenge of fixing things. It also needs the media to take its role as facilitator of the conversation about fixing those problems seriously. The media has huge influence over whether our political leaders are problem-fixers or circus performers.

The presidential race should not be a circus performance or an episode of American Idol. It should be about fixing a broken country.

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6 comments so far. Scroll down to submit your own comment.

  1. “Gary Johnson’s authenticity seems, well, authentic. The media especially doesn’t know what to do with Mr Johnson and his indifference to optics, other than to ignore it. Because how can a man dispositionally allergic to pandering get ahead in politics? Yet his anti-charismatic charm seems to have worked in New Mexico.”

    ” Mostly he outlined his enviable record as governor of New Mexico—the many budgets he balanced, the astonishing number of bills he vetoed, the surplus he left behind.”

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/09/gary-johnson

  2. Good comments, Heath. Your observations are on the mark. May I add one more thing? The Republican Party steers debates and media coverage to include those candidates who cater most effectively to their voting base. The media does it’s job to cull the candidates, but the Party has to keep the base happy, and a candidate like Gary Johnson is their worst nightmare, eventhough he supports many of the tenets of the GOP. I would love to hear the abortion-rights question on a “debate”, or the gay marriage question, with Johnson being able to weigh in. He horrifies the far right with his drug stance, which is spot-on. Johnson is getting the staft, not only from the media covering the candidates, but from his own party.

  3. Our government would be much better off if people like Hemingway and the media were to back off and not spout the rhetoric that they know what is best for the people. The people of today are much more educated and astute to the happenings in this country and the rest of the world.
    The people who vote according to the agenda of the media are doing themselves and the rest of the country a disservice. They have crated a media circus that is likened unto the midway call, “Come one, come all and see the bearded lady. You don’t want to miss this phenomena.”
    Until the people get their heads out of the rhetoric spouted by the media and most reporters they will never be able to see the truth.

  4. They did it to John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich.

  5. Heningway, Fox has been involved with 3 of 8 debates so far, two of which were the only ones that included Johnson. Why you choose to call out the Republicans, who aren’t sposoring the debates, or Fox, which has been done more than any other outlet, reflects your own bias, not theirs. I get the impression that you would find fault with FNC if you read on Media Matters that they reported that today was Wednesday.

  6. You don’t mention Fox News. Former Governor Johnson’s Libertarian perspective has been ignored ignored by the broader Republican party and Fox News.

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