This is the first in an occasional series of essays on media and politics for Campaign 2008.


This year's presidential election campaign is historic all right, but for all the wrong reasons. It's a sure bet that the Democratic presidential candidate will either be 1) a woman or 2) an African-American. But before we get all misty eyed about how progressive our politics have become, we'd best heed Sen. Clinton's advice and take a "reality check."

If the first weeks of 2008 are any indication at all, this year's election cycle will be a season in hell. Even though it's early, it's hard to know who is more contemptible in all of this: a motley crew of "front runners," that mythic creature commonly referred to as "the two-party system" or the scourge of democratic communication, the corporate media.

Thing is, it's hard to make hard-and-fast distinctions between any of these groups. They're all part and parcel of a system so thoroughly awash in money, corruption and influence peddling that any pretense of substantive, political discourse has all but disappeared down the rabbit hole.

The recent debates in New Hampshire and Las Vegas demonstrate the extent to which the system has been rigged to marginalize voices of dissent and opposition to the status quo.

On Jan. 5, ABC television presented an "historic" first -- Republican and Democrat candidates would debate on the same night from the same stage. ABC was quick to brand this bit of political theater "One Night, Two Parties" and took every opportunity to plug its own news reports and correspondents. But the real story was who wasn't invited to the party.

Democratic candidates for president, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Mike Gravel, former senator from Alaska, were barred from the debate, as was Republican presidential hopeful Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.). And it's not as if ABC didn't have enough chairs either. No fewer than six Republican candidates fit on the stage just fine.

The following evening, Ron Paul (R-Texas) was excluded from the Republican candidates' debate on the FOX television network. And just this past week, MSNBC had the temerity to invite, and then uninvite, Kucinich from the Democratic debate in Las Vegas.

In each case, the networks contend that candidates are barred from participating in televised debates because they failed to meet certain benchmarks. (Maybe we should let the American TV networks have a crack at the Iraqi parliament). In any event, the network's criteria are murky at best and reflect the corporate media's tendency to anoint so-called "front runners" and dismiss "also rans" as they see fit.

None of this bares even the faintest resemblance to democratic politics. Corporate media are outdoing themselves this campaign season to assure that it will be business as usual come inauguration day. It's no coincidence that candidates like Paul, Gravel and Kucinich are excluded because their views don't correspond with those of the corporate oligarchs and their minions.

And so we are treated to the horserace approach to presidential politics: he-said, she-said reports on candidates' strategies and tactics, breathless accounts of the reams of money being spent on political advertising and, of course, a seemingly endless parade of pundits and pollsters spinning the latest stump speech. All of which is carefully crafted to create a soothing, soporific effect on the electorate.

It's clear then, that corporate media is unwilling to "connect the dots" when it comes to presidential politics. In the weeks and months ahead we'd all do well to make effective use of independent media to cover the campaign with honesty and integrity. In times like these, a free press -- and by extension, a well-informed citizenry -- is the best remedy for a dysfunctional political culture.

Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at

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