January 21, 2008
One pundit called the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas "a lovefest." It may well have been, but only because the corporate sponsor of the debate, General Electric-owned NBC News and its cable news channel MSNBC, rescinded its invitation to candidate Dennis Kucinich. NBC decided earlier that it would invite the top four Democratic candidates to the debate. Then New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson dropped out of the race, which elevated Kucinich to the fourth position.
Jenny Backus of NBC sent an e-mail to the Kucinich campaign, saying Kucinich "met the criteria set by NBC and the debate sponsors." So Kucinich was surprised when, less than two days later, NBC News political director Chuck Todd called the Kucinich campaign to rescind the invitation. Kucinich responded with a lawsuit, filed in Nevada state court, claiming that NBC had broken its contract with him to include him in the debate.
District Judge J. Charles Thompson ruled in Kucinich's favor, enjoining NBC from holding the debate without him. Thompson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "If the criteria was one set of rules and you changed the rules in the middle of the game so as to exclude somebody after having invited them, I'm offended by that." NBC escalated its efforts to exclude Kucinich, appealing to the Nevada Supreme Court. NBC claimed that "Mr. Kucinich's claim is nothing more than an illegitimate private cause of action designed to impose an equal-access requirement that entirely undermines the wide journalistic freedoms enjoyed by news organizations under the First Amendment."
NBC also argued: "A television station does not have to grant unlimited access to a candidate debate. If anyone's First Amendment rights are being infringed, they are MSNBC's."
As the hour of the debate neared, MSNBC hyped the event. The Nevada Supreme Court was debating whether to sustain Thompson's decision, which would have forced NBC to include Kucinich. Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball," said, "This promises to be the hottest debate of the political season, because only a few candidates will be up there on the stage." He did not burden his audience with the news that his network was working behind the scenes to exclude a candidate. The host of MSNBC's most popular program, Keith Olbermann, mentioned the successful Kucinich lawsuit and NBC's appeal, and reported when, 50 minutes before the debate, the Nevada Supreme Court sided with NBC, excluding Kucinich.
Late Tuesday night, after the debate, Kucinich learned that the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., was going to take up a defense appropriations bill on Wednesday. He took a red-eye flight back from Las Vegas.
Unlike the candidates who General Electric/NBC News allowed into the debate, Kucinich stands alone in opposing war funding: "I'm the only person running for president who not only voted against the war, but voted 100 percent of the time against funding the war.
"They either voted for the war, in the case of Sen. Edwards and Sen. Clinton, or they voted to fund the war, in the case of Sen. Edwards, Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama, who, by the way, campaigned saying, well, he opposed the war from the start, but then when he was elected to the Senate, his voting record is indistinguishable from Sen. Clinton's with respect to funding the war."
Kucinich wants Congress to fulfill its obligation to use its power of the purse to shut off funding for the war in Iraq. He told me, "I'm going to be there to challenge the bill, to speak on it and call for a vote and, hopefully, keep alive the issue of a contest over defense spending policies."
He went on: "It goes right to the question of democratic governance, whether a broadcast network can choose who the candidates will be, based on their narrow concerns, because they've contributed — GE, NBC and Raytheon, another one of GE's properties, have all contributed substantially to Democratic candidates who were in the debate. And the fact of the matter is, with GE building nuclear power plants, they have a vested interest in Yucca Mountain in Nevada being kept open; with GE being involved with Raytheon, another defense contractor, they have an interest in war continuing. So NBC ends up being their propaganda arm to be able to advance their economic interests."
A quick search of Federal Election Commission data showed that employees of those three companies — GE, NBC and Raytheon — have contributed in total $68,656 to the Democratic presidential candidates. Most of that went to the three GE-approved candidates who were on the stage Tuesday night.
In his farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower famously said, "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."
Add to that complex the media, with a company like General Electric, with its vested interests in selling weaponry and nuclear power plants, using its subsidiary, NBC, to exclude candidates like Kucinich, who is for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, no nuclear energy, no Yucca Mountain radioactive waste dump, and for single-payer health care. If there was a lovefest at the Las Vegas debate, it was between the corporate-funded Democrats and their sponsor, GE/NBC.
Denis Moynihan contributed to today's column. Amy Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.