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Party of Seven?

Monday’s New York gubernatorial debate has been called many things, from “bizarre” to a “circus” and a “farce.” And indeed, it was theatrical, if not particularly deep or revealing.

If anything, the seven-way debate at Hofstra University did reveal one more way in which serious minor-party candidates are blocked from getting any serious media attention.

To be fair, even the Republican candidate, Carl Paladino, came away from the debate frustrated, as the free-for-all left him little chance to do what he really wanted to do: Go head-to-head with front-runner Andrew Cuomo in the hope that viewers across the state, focused on just the two major-party candidates, would find Paladino more likeable than Cuomo (and more likeable than he has appeared so far in his blustery, blundering campaign). Instead, he had to strain to be heard amid the sea of voices, just like everybody else.

Still, Paladino is the Republican nominee; he has lots of money to spend on advertising, and he gets plenty of attention from the media. The same cannot be said of the third-party candidates, notably the two most serious ones, Howie Hawkins and Warren Redlich.

In a way, the all-are-welcome format of the debate turned Hawkins’ and Redlich’s pleas for inclusiveness against them, as their ideas—thoughtful and well-articulated when given the chance—were very nearly drowned out by the circus atmosphere, and by the attention given to the three arguably more fringe candidates. Not that Charles Barron, Kristin Davis and Jimmy McMillan don’t have some worthwhile ideas themselves, but they are clearly running as outsiders finger-poking the established order, not serious candidates trying, at the very least, to build visibility and credibility for their respective parties and philosophies.

In a political season in which libertarianism has been temporarily hijacked by right-wing Republicans running under the name of the Tea Party, Redlich is a bona fide libertarian who expresses its ideas much more eloquently than Paladino—who happens to like big government when it gives his companies big subsidies—could ever hope to. Hawkins, meanwhile, is the sort of Green Party progressive that the mainstream Democratic establishment tries to swat away like pesky flies (think Ralph Nader) so the Dems can run in the center and not piss off their banker friends while assuming that the party’s more progressive voters will do as they’re told.

And the mainstream media just continue to play along and perpetuate a system in which third-party candidates are swept aside to clear the way for the two who have the most corporate backing. News organizations sometimes defend their scant coverage of outside challengers by claiming it reflects the degree of voter interest in such candidates. Of course, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem in that logic, but beyond that, the media often remain silent on minor-party candidates, even if their numbers start to pick up in the polls. Ross Perot—the billionaire centrist who ran to the right of Bill Clinton and to the left of George H.W. Bush in 1992—was an exception, but Nader certainly was not. In September and October of 2000, I conducted a content analysis of The New York Times that showed the Old Gray Lady giving George W. Bush and Al Gore roughly 32 times more coverage than Nader, even though their poll numbers were only 8 times higher than his.

Look at how the Times handled its full page debate preview in Monday’s print edition. The top half of the page was devoted to a story on how Cuomo and Paladino (both pictured at the top) were preparing for the debate, and what was at stake for each. Message: Sideshow aside, this is a two-person race.

The bottom half featured thumbnail sketches of the five minor-party candidates, but even this was done unequally: Barron, Davis and McMillan were given more space that Hawkins and Redlich and were placed at the top. Their photos were more than twice the size of the straightforward portraits of Redlich and Hawkins, and more attention-getting: Barron was gesturing and pontificating, Davis (the former madam) was displaying her ample cleavage, and McMillan was sitting on the hood of a car wearing shades and sporting his Hulk Hogan mustache. Message: These three characters might make tonight’s debate interesting. Never mind the dullards at the bottom—they might have ideas.

And you might have thought debates—and campaigns, for that matter—were about ideas. Well, think again. I mean, don’t think. Just vote. Democratic, or Republican.

—Stephen Leon


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