Watching Newsweek's Eleanor Clift confront the question "Are most political reporters simply insiders?" is a discomfiting experience. Her struggle to defend the indefensible unavoidably inspires compassion for her uneasy predicament. But the case she makes so proves the point that any sympathy engendered morphs quickly into cynicism.
The political reporter appeared on a Dec. 29, 2011, panel discussion on Al Jazeera, subtitled the question du jour. Joining her were Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman and Justice Party presidential candidate Rocky Anderson, of whose candidacy Clift knew nothing. Al Jazeera devoted a third of the half-hour program's opinions to the former Salt Lake City mayor. Clift apparently had never heard of him.
"I think Rocky Anderson is running probably to get his issues out there, more than from an expectation that he might necessarily win," she awkwardly speculated aloud, unsure about the Justice Party's name, no less.
Clift, who also contributes to The Daily Beast, defended the media's treatment of third parties, which independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 2008 called a "blackout" and "political bigotry." To the contrary, she asserted, the media love the drama third parties bring.
"People are saying they are tired of the media catering to the 1 percent, instead of exposing the 1 percent." - Amy Goodmany, Democracy Now!
"The last thing the press corps wants is a Romney-Obama race," she said on an edition of Al Jazeera's Inside Story: U.S. 2012. "Think of that, for all those many months."
Clift acknowledged the anger the American people feel toward their government and their yearning for more choices and parties. And she said the media has responded, sort of. They have covered speculative third-party bids by Donald Trump and Ron Paul and will be doing more.
"There are two sort-of-third-party entities," she added, "Americans Elect, which is going to have an Internet convention and choose a ticket, and No Labels, which is trying to get away from Republican and Democrat. They're not actually going to mount a ticket."
Clift mentioned neither Jill Stein nor Kent Mesplay, declared 2012 Green Party candidates. Her defense for ignoring alternative parties:
"Hundreds of people file to run for president. You have to have some sort of screen."
Rocky Anderson is no fringe figure. He is a two-term mayor of Salt Lake City, who, in addition to announcing for president in December, earned a national reputation for his ultra-progressive positions on gay rights, environmental sustainability and the Iraq War - while being elected and re-elected in Utah.
The candidate is widely known for his high-profile relationship with Mitt Romney, with whom he worked to rescue Salt Lake's 2002 Winter Olympics. Despite their ideological and party differences - Anderson was a Democrat at the time - the two endorsed each other's subsequent bids for Salt Lake mayor and Massachusetts governor.
"The column inches that have been devoted to Mitt Romney's hair and the man who cuts his hair, it is obscene when we've got so many issues that aren't being covered." - Rocky Anderson, Justice Party
Just 17 days before Clift met Anderson in the Al Jazeera studio, The Guardian columnist Gary Younge published a piece subtitled "US history is littered with failed third parties, but the progressive populism of Salt Lake City's ex-mayor might just break the mould."
Three months prior, her fellow Newsweek columnist and Beast contributor McKay Coppins penned a column about Anderson titled "Why Salt Lake's Mayor Lost Faith in Mitt."
A TalkingPointsMemo search for "Rocky Anderson" produced 21 stories, dating to 2007.
On Al Jazeera, Clift said she would like to know more about the Justice Party. But she warned history is not on Anderson's side.
"I think if you look at our tradition in American politics, I don't think we've ever elected somebody who is a former mayor," she said. "Usually our presidents come from the Senate or governors."
Furthermore, Clift added, third parties make people nervous. Nader's 2000 Green Party candidacy "hurt the candidate he was closest to," she alleged, referring to Democrat Al Gore. And in 1992, "Pat Buchanan probably caused the defeat of the Republican who he was closest to."
Buchanan ran against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primaries, not as a third-party candidate. Texas oil man Ross Perot ran in the general election on the Reform Party ticket against Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton.
Anderson assured Clift that his is a serious campaign and is in fact a winner's strategy.
"People across the political spectrum in this country want to see a major change in our system, where the corrupting influence of money carries the day against the public interest," he said, citing a list of public-policy failures as examples.
Failed leadership on climate change - "We know that's due to the corrupting influence of money from the fossil fuel industry." Failure to provide essential health care for all citizens - "It's because of the corrupting influence of money from the insurance industry."
Clift's argument that alternative party candidates hurt their natural political allies was based on fundamentally false assumptions, Anderson said. A poll taken 10 days after he entered the race gave him 4 percent support, with Romney beating Obama in a one-on-one matchup.
"When you threw me in the mix, Obama won," he said.
The Al Jazeera discussion took place just days before the Iowa caucuses, as Republican Texas Congressman Ron Paul led the polls. Clift shrugged off the suggestion that the media's failure to take him seriously until that point was a "massive failure."
"I think there is a widespread assumption, which I share, that Ron Paul, who is 70-something years old and is really a libertarian, is in the end not going to be the Republican standard bearer," she said.
"Just like we have People magazine along with Time and Newsweek, people do want to know about these personalities." - Eleanor Clift, Newsweek
Her fellow panelists rejected that line of defense for ignoring, for example, his radical, antiwar views.
Anderson said the media ignoring Paul's candidacy and failing to seriously examine his racist past and social-Darwinist approach toward government aided and abetted his caucus success.
"How many people really knew that when we're reading on the front page of the New York Times about Mitt Romney's hair?" he said. "The column inches that have been devoted to Mitt Romney's hair and the man who cuts his hair, it is obscene when we've got so many issues that aren't being covered."
Five days after the program, Paul finished third in Iowa with 21 percent of the vote. A week later, he finished second in the New Hampshire Primary, garnering 23 percent.
Al Jazeera graphics accompanying the program said a 2002 Harvard Kennedy School poll showed 89 percent of Americans believe the media focuses too much on "trivial issues." It also showed 62 percent do not trust media election coverage, and 82 percent believe media influence is too great.
Goodman insisted Americans do not want the kind of simplistic, horse-race, beauty-contest coverage that the broadcast media routinely deliver.
"They're force fed it," she said.
Goodman said the Occupy Wall Street movement has shown what the media say the public cares about isn't true.
"It's resonating with most people in this country," she said of the Occupy message. "People are saying they are tired of the media catering to the 1 percent, instead of exposing the 1 percent."
That deference to the economic elite, Goodman added, extends to the third-party candidates the media does cover, predominantly people with enormous personal wealth, from Ross Perot to Donald Trump.
"These are the people they will focus on," she said. "But Rocky Anderson, who instead of having money lays out a platform?"
While the press corps focuses on trifles like the kind of cereal Mitt Romney eats - "sugary," according to a CNN report - Anderson said it ignores the fact that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Sixty percent of those imprisoned are African-American or Latino, even though they represent only 30 percent of the population.
"I want to ask any journalist, 'When was the last time you talked about the prison-industrial complex in this country?'" he said.
While Clift termed the CNN cereal report ultra trivia - "There's a lot of time to fill on the cable networks" - she agreed the prison issue is "genuine" and said it "may come up in the periphery."
She defended the soft stories.
"Just like we have People magazine along with Time and Newsweek, people do want to know about these personalities," she said.
Anderson said that a time when the disparity between the rich and the middle and working classes is at its greatest point in a century, the media's preoccupation with the aristocracy is evidence this truly is the new gilded age.
"What a betrayal by the media of our democracy," he said. "During the races, it's the time when people's attention is centered on these issues. It's a great time educate people."
A CNN correspondent reported the cereal detail about Romney while "embedded" with the campaign, a journalistic development that Goodman and Anderson repudiated.
Goodman agreed with the suggestion that the embed concept, which began with reporters in the Iraq War, was created by the military as a technique to limit media coverage, not enhance it.
"I want to ask any journalist, 'When was the last time you talked about the prison-industrial complex in this country?'" - Rocky Anderson, Justice Party
"It has brought the media to an all-time low," she said. "... The way they stay on a campaign is they talk about sugary cereal. They start raising hard questions of the campaign candidates, they'll often be thrown off the bus."
In addition to the prison-industrial complex, cable news outlets could fill all that airtime covering the increasing restrictions put on Americans right to vote, Goodman said. States with the largest African American and Latino populations have increasingly restricted voter registration laws.
"These issues have to be addressed because at the same time they are limiting the ability for people to understand what the issues are and what these candidates represent, fewer and fewer people in this country are being able to vote because of repressive legislation," she said.
Anderson reiterated his contention that the media's misplaced priorities give short shrift to the public's desire for fundamental change in the system.
"This is what the American people want across the political spectrum," he said. "We want to get the corrupting influence of money out of the system, even if it requires a constitutional amendment to get rid of this Citizens United case."
Clift laughed when asked if she feels complicit with a system that is entirely corrupted and doesn't serve the people, though she did agree money has "flooded" the system.
"I don't know how to turn that around," she said. "I don't know how you get the support for a constitutional amendment to get rid of that Citizens United case, because you have to overcome all these hurdles."
Goodman said it would help if the news media covered the issues instead of the personalities.
"We're not perfect," Clift said. "But we put a lot of stuff out there."
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