Democracy has become a media event, and this year presidential candidate Larry Agran got written out of the script. Agran has some useful things to say about urban policy, and we're never going to know what they are. But maybe that's a small price to pay for order in political prime time.
Without standards, how easily presidential politics could have gotten out of hand! In New Hampshire 36 Democrats, 25 Republicans, and a Libertarian each sprang for the $1,000 it took to buy a line on the primary ballot. Distinctions had to be made, or the hallowed debates would have sounded like chickens scratching over corn. That's why the national parties, the debate sponsors, and the media collectively drew a line through the field, separating out everyone it seemed safe to ignore. The line was a fine one. Former one-term senator Paul Tsongas, widely ridiculed as an obscure, underfunded Greek from Massachusetts, made this cut, perhaps because Massachusetts lies next door to New Hampshire. Larry Agran, the obscure, underfunded former Democratic mayor of Irvine, California, a city of 110,000 in Republican Orange County, was deemed inconsequential, perhaps because mayors aren't thought of as national politicians and his political base was on the opposite side of the country.
Even so, Agran's had his moments. Last August, around the time he announced, he was interviewed by Roger Mudd for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. A few days later a senior producer at the show wrote a "Dear Larry" letter with the good news that after the show "the phones were ringing . . . with people calling and asking where they could get more information.
"Jeff Kaye, our correspondent in Los Angeles, told me that a radio talk show host out there actually condemned the L.A. Times and their political reporters for ignoring Agran's candidacy. He pointedly . . . congratulated us for not being 'gatekeepers' deciding who was a 'legitimate candidate' and who was not."
In late January MacNeil/Lehrer sponsored a candidates' forum. Agran was not invited. We have read the nine-page letter Agran wrote pleading his case. He reported that his campaign had raised $200,000 from donors in 37 states, that he'd already qualified for primary ballots or caucuses in nearly 30 states, that the New York Times had described Irvine while he was mayor as a "crucible of municipal innovation."
These arguments cut no ice. MacNeil/Lehrer had decided it was better to be a gatekeeper after all. Agran got back a terse, two-paragraph "Dear Mr. Agran" letter telling him he was still out. "We stand by the validity of our previous assessment," wrote the associate executive producer. "It was, we believe, a journalistically sound judgement."
Just as decisively, the media dealt with an inconvenient tracking poll that saw Agran's support in New Hampshire jump from 2 to 4 percent and the candidate move into fifth place, behind Bill Clinton, Tsongas, Bob Kerrey, and Tom Harkin--but ahead of Jerry Brown. Here's how the Columbia Journalism Review tells the story, in an article in the March issue called "The Press Rejects a Candidate":
"ABC's World News Sunday--perhaps to sidestep the problem of explaining the identity of a man 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."
In early February Agran and the more visible candidates attended a Global Warming Leadership Forum in Tallahassee. The organizer told CJR that the audience "was more enthusiastic about Larry Agran than about Bill Clinton." But according to the magazine, ABC, CBS, and the AP didn't bother mentioning that Agran was even there.
A serious lapse in the common effort to treat Agran as though he did not exist was committed in January by the New York Times. An article out of Washington that carried the headline "Mayors Appear Unmoved by the Major Candidates" began like this:
"After hearing pitches from the Democratic Presidential contenders on how they would revive America's cities, dozens of mayors meeting here today seemed to agree on one thing: the single candidate who truly understands urban needs is Larry Agran."
The Times had behaved more typically last September, when covering a Democratic forum in Sioux City, Iowa. The views of Governor Bill Clinton and Senator Tom Harkin were reported at some length, even though neither man was even a declared candidate at the time. Tsongas received just one paragraph and was not quoted, while Agran was mentioned at the end of the article as someone "the group also heard from."
The accompanying photo perfectly expresses what Agran was up against. The Associated Press snapped Tsongas, Harkin, Clinton, and Agran chatting among themselves at the forum. In the Times we could see Tsongas looking in Agran's direction and Harkin actually gesturing toward him. But Agran himself was not there. He'd been trimmed out of the picture.
One of Agran's several rebuffs came at the hands of the League of Women Voters, which refused to allow him to appear in the debate it sponsored in mid-February. Agran failed to measure up to the league's criteria, among them this: "Recognition by the national media as a candidate meriting media attention. Since media coverage of particular candidates by major newspapers and television networks tends to evidence a recognition by the national media of substantial voter interest in a candidate and serves independently to foster such interest, this criterion is an appropriate consideration in determining the significance of particular candidates in the national campaign."
What the league was acknowledging here is that media coverage both reflects voter interest and creates it. No interest is being created in a candidate who isn't covered, which makes it hard for the candidate to say why he deserves to be. Agran could never get past this Catch-92. His fund-raising collapsed when the debates went on without him, and he wound up with less than 1 percent of the vote.
"We thought the program would meet resistance," Mike Kaspar, who's Agran's press spokesman, told us, "but we never anticipated 80 percent of our time would be spent trying to get in newspapers and trying to get in debates sponsored by our own party."
The power the media wields over the political process is not solely informal, nor is it happenstance. Thirty states have laws empowering their secretaries of state to place on primary ballots candidates "generally advocated by the news media." These laws were passed in the name of reform. Journalism professor Jonathan Friendly explains that they were written two decades ago to take the nominating process away from the sort of party insiders who in 1968 easily spurned Eugene McCarthy despite his celebrity and public support.
But Friendly thinks the reform doesn't work. He went so far as to issue a statement last Friday saying why. "The media is happiest when it's writing about three or so candidates in each party," he said. "It makes the campaign much easier to cover, and it results in more dramatic stories. So although the intent of the reforms passed in the early 1970s may have been to open up the primary process, by relying on the press to legitimize candidates they ended up narrowing the field."
Friendly heads the graduate journalism program at the University of Michigan, and Michigan is one of the states that applies a media-interest test to presidential candidates. Larry Agran isn't on the ballot there. Neither was Lyndon LaRouche, until he asked the American Civil Liberties Union to go to court for him. Friendly prepared an affidavit that clinched the ACLU's case.
He ran a computer search of 20 major publications and found about 150 mentions of LaRouche since last September. Citing these, his affidavit concluded, "Lyndon LaRouche clearly meets Michigan's statutory standards."
Now Friendly's helping the ACLU try to place both LaRouche and, ironically, Eugene McCarthy on the primary ballot in Connecticut. Here the ACLU isn't arguing simply that LaRouche and McCarthy have crossed the threshold of media visibility. The ACLU maintains that the state's media-advocacy standard is unconstitutional.
Friendly's statement was issued partly to explain what he was doing on the side of such a dubious character. "LaRouche, who is serving a prison term for credit-card and mail fraud, is a despicable man," he stated. "But my view of him is irrelevant. The issue is whether Michigan and Connecticut's laws governing who gets on the ballot are applied fairly--and if it's even possible to apply them fairly."
He doesn't think it is. We called Friendly and asked if he thought the same kind of research would have shown Agran meeting Michigan's criteria. "I suspect he does," said Friendly. "The point is that the process is flawed. The law is wrong in setting this up as a standard."
By now Agran has qualified for primaries or caucuses in 37 states and territories. One of them's Illinois, where nothing more was required than a petition with 3,000 signatures. Agran spent some time in Connecticut, and the secretary of state decided he'd made enough news there to belong on the ballot. The ACLU helped put him on the ballot in Wisconsin. Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi all decided Agran didn't measure up.
"It comes down to this nebulous idea that you're not significant because you're not anointed by the national media," Kaspar moaned. "The secretary of state in Florida will say, 'I haven't read about you enough in the New York Times, so you're not a significant candidate.'"
It was much easier to read about significant noncandidates. Mario Cuomo, of course. And Richard Gephardt and Al Gore. Who were they? According to the pundits, veritable Achilleses promising to burst from their tents after New Hampshire if the pygmies struggling there wound up on their shields.
Remember who they were four years ago? Two of the media's "seven dwarfs" running for president. Don't count on the media to figure out who's worth paying attention to. They think differently from other folks. Their standards may not be yours.