Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fringe? Third Party Media Coverage

Greetings, readers.  My regular Dispatch will air as usual on Saturday, but I have been moved to write a guest column by a matter I consider to be of great importance.

I have been following the debate on the Adirondack Almanack, NCPR’s web site and various commenters on both sites over the question of whether political reporters do their job these days and specifically whether the media should cover the Green Party and their presidential candidate Jill Stein.

Pardon me for saying so, but this debate exhibits two characteristics that all too often define our contemporary political discourse.  One is an appalling lack of understanding of the American political system.  The other is the dull, lowbrow, American celebration of winners and size:  “Bigger is better…” …”Winning is the only thing…”, etc.  Heaven help us.

The position published in the Almanack on this debate may be fairly described as activist: that’s how I see it.  I don’t agree with all of it by any means.  But I find the response, written from the perspective of a professional journalist, troubling.

A point was made in the NCPR article about the challenge and importance of deciding what is or is not newsworthy.  This point would be well taken – certainly there are difficult choices to make about what to cover – if the argument wasn’t so terribly off target in his case.  Here’s why it’s wrong: first, the American political system has never been about simple majorities winning, and second, what is historically important and newsworthy about third parties is not the candidates themselves but the parties, the people they represent, their ideas and their grass-roots power.

The commenters who continually dismiss the Green Party because they can’t win need to reread their de Tocqueville.  The American political system is not a democracy, ladies and gentlemen.  It is a representative republic, carefully crafted to magnify minority strength, to force the powers that be to deal with alternative views and challenges to authority.  We often hear, usually from the right, the tired canard that “activist” judges are subverting the will of the people. These critics had better take down their portraits of the founding fathers because judicial challenges to majority power are exactly what those men intended.  That’s the way the system is supposed to work.

In our political system minority views, even more obscure views that oh-so-easily get dismissed as “fringe” have operative power every single day, at every level of government.  $200,000 for a study of grain elevators that support breeding populations of endangered swallows in Iowa (to make up an example) may not strike anyone as a mainstream agenda item for our Congress and would not stand a chance of winning a straight-up vote, but stuff like that sails through every day, added to bills as riders.  Why? Because minority factions – even those as little as one congressperson with a small constituency – have tremendous clout. They’re designed to.  That makes them eminently newsworthy depending upon the issue.

Our founding fathers were pretty smart people. They anticipated that the divide between majority public opinion and what is best for the nation, or even what is moral and just, would often be a chasm.  The abolitionist movement was a “fringe” movement.  So was the struggle for a five day work week.  So was the fight for right-to-know ordinances.  So was the activism of immigrant farm workers.  So was the civil rights movement.  Every one of those movements changed the nation.

All of this is true in political races as well.  Third party candidates with no chance of winning have significant impacts all the time, pulling “mainstream” candidates to the right or left, bringing critical issues to the forefront and even influencing outcomes.

In other words, what is newsworthy and what ought to be newsworthy, even in a campaign where someone wins, needs to be decoupled from poll percentages or Twitter hits.

The power of third parties is about the movements themselves much more than the leaders.  Leaders can win or lose… or be arrested.  But the ideas matter, they have force.  We like to laud our heroes and demonize our villains in America.  But Martin Luther King would say – and did say – that the civil rights movement wasn’t about him, that it would carry forward as an inexorable force without him.  And it did. Quite frankly whether Jill Stein can win or not is entirely irrelevant to the importance of her story in this campaign.  Yet we, a nation busy watching football right now, score her a loser, and political reporters and others go right along with it. That kind of dismissive attitude is ignorant.

Do you think I‘m wrong?  Look at the Tea Party, whose recent influence is unquestionable.  Who is their leader?  Who is their presidential candidate?

I suppose a reporter might say that the Tea Party is worth covering because they are not a “fringe” group – they are making a major impact and the Greens make almost none.  Personally I find it incredibly discomforting to think that a reporter should be deciding what is or is not “fringe.”  Boy oh boy, how many times in our history has the dismissal of “fringe” groups been a mistake?  Isn’t it a better standard to try to make some qualitative judgments about the importance of what is being said and done?

On that score the Green Party – a worldwide phenomenon with millions of supporters, by the way – rates pretty well, unless one dismisses the critical importance of the modern environmental movement. Most of that was the very essence of “fringe.”  With the exception of Gaylord Nelson most of the environmental evolution in this country was fomented by losers, by people who never held office: people who were defeated by Democrats and Republicans alike or who never ran at all.  Yet “green” is a pervasive term in our corporate and commercial lexicon, recycling is a multi-billion-dollar industry and incandescent light bulbs are more scarce than victories by my Cleveland Browns.  The Green Party is a central part of that environmental legacy.

Here’s an up-to-the-moment example of what I‘m talking about.  Climate change is arguably the most important issue of our time.  The fact that idiot deniers have the upper hand right now is heartbreaking, but it won’t last.  Any decent reporter knows that climate change is critically important, maybe more important than anything else, if not as immediate.  The Democrats and Republicans are silent on it in our Presidential campaign, this for the sake of winning an election. The Greens, a movement that has helped to change our entire approach to the environment, are the only ones talking about it in this election season.

Dismissing coverage of Jill Stein because her resume is unimpressive or because she can’t become president, when she represents one of the most important viewpoints of modern times and is backed by millions of people who agree with her on this issue, strikes me as profoundly indefensible.

Finally, coverage of third parties and “fringe” movements, especially those related to environment, ought to register as especially important to the Adirondack region, therefore making this particular debate more even more relevant.  The Adirondack experiment is hardly mainstream.  But it’s newsworthy.

Photo: another fringe group on the march.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons



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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

27 Responses

  1. Katharine Preston says:

    Well said, Pete. Thank you for pricking our conscience to listen and to remember that persuasive and important ideas evolve. They do not simply emerge fully grown and immediately effective in the public sphere.

  2. Tom Beardsley says:

    Nicely put, with important reminders and great points about our makeup, our design, and the inherent ability of our system to bring strength through diversity.
    The study of swallows in silos, the discovery of snail darters near damns, of frogs in Minnesota and tidal pool changes in Portland have led to far more important revelations – like Climate Change.
    We learn from all kinds of “earmarks” and “pork” programs supported by tax dollars and if we hammer down too much, we lose our design, we lose our innovation and the very power loss which many lament will become very real.
    On the other hand, the system is resilient – as long as discourse is never dismissed. There’s a place for FOX, for MSNBC, for the lame and the main, even if they are irritants.

  3. duane says:

    It is sad that Pete has repeated the oft stated meme we “are not a democracy but a republic”. A distinction meant to impress the casual listener maybe, but one that falls apart when dissected. We are a democracy, a representative democracy to be more precise. We the people directly elect representatives to represent us in our form of democratic (representative) government. We do not vote on every bill, but we are still a democracy. There may be some people who try to impress a clear difference between democracy and republic, but a quick search of definitions finds the parsing of differences is very weak. Also, in the case at hand, I can not see where it has any bearing the subject matter.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Well Duane, I don’t know if it’s all that sad. There is a distinct and historic difference between a democracy where the simple majority prevails and the version crafted by our founders. Their construction of democracy, which was argued and debated over decades, is a clear and unmistakable proposal to avoid oppression by the majority, to empower minority views, to impose checks and balances, to bestow of necessity tremendous and often unilateral power in an Executive, to place the Supreme Court beyond the reach of democracy entirely. To suggest that stating these differences is meant to impress the causal listener is silly.

      From lifetime appointments on the Court to the Electoral College to veto powers and 2/3 majorities to the rules under which congress operates to the noble resilience of our Constitution, much of our American design is far afield from pure democracy. It is unsupportable that you would consider those differences weak.

      As to relevance, the whole point is that as alluring as the simplistic, black and white thinking of winners and losers may be, the American calculus is nothing like black and white. Coverage of winners and exclusion of minority viewpoints because they can’t win may be convenient but it is superficial and contrary to the reality of politics in America, precisely because of all I pointed out.

      That’s relevant.

  4. There’s also quite a bit of hypocrisy. The media will ALWAYS cover Democrat and Republican candidates roughly equally, even if nearly everyone believes one will get massacred at the polls. I doubt you could find a single establishment journalist who thought Mike Oot would win Betty Little’s senate seat or that Howard Mills would win Chuck Schumer’s senate seat. I doubt you can find a single major journalist who thinks Wendy Long will win Kirsten Gillibrand’s seat.

    Yet the media treats the major party challenger and the incumbent as rough equals, despite what the polls say. The same standard should apply to smaller party and independent candidates.

  5. Totally agree with Duane. A republic is one of the many forms of democracy, along with direct democracy and constitutional monarchy. A republic is a subset of democracy. A true republic is thus, by definition, a democracy.

    Saying “we’re a republic not a democracy” makes as much sense as saying, “I’m a Yankee fan, not a baseball fan.”

    Oh wait… bad example. =)

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Brian, I hope you read my response to Duane above.

      Suppose my sentence in the original article had said something like “not merely a democracy,” or “not a simple democracy,” thereby placating Duane and any others who want to parse the sentence as though that refutes my point.

      Would that change make any difference whatsoever to my argument?

      I’m not arguing about democracy, I’m arguing over simplistic thinking about majority rule and winners.

      • Pete: According to any dictionary I’ve looked at, democracy means rule by the people, either directly **or via elected representatives**.

        Pretty clear.

        I’m pretty sure that you (and others who use that phrase) really mean “direct democracy,” which is a form of democracy but not the only form.

        Your gist is right. It’s just the phrasing that’s erroneous.

        • Pete Nelson says:


          I am happy to have my sentence so amended, so long as we agree that the matter is in no way simplistic, arguments over definitions aside.

  6. “Do you think I‘m wrong? Look at the Tea Party, whose recent influence is unquestionable. Who is their leader?”
    Answer: the Koch brothers. Without their funding it the TEA party would have been a passing blip.
    “Who is their presidential candidate?”
    Answer: Mitt Romney.

    The founders intended a system without parties but that didn’t even survive the Presidency of John Adams. The only minority with a real influence in our system that is being rapidly turned into a plutocracy is the very rich who can use their money to manipulate or outright control the media. Sadly, we are at the point where the old George Carlin routine “The American Dream” is true. Elections should be about ideas but they aren’t. They’re about money, just like everything else in this country.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Of course I mostly agree with you. Here is Wisconsin, the recent epicenter of democratic opposition to moneyed power, many of us have no love for the Koch Brothers. I am no Tea Partier, I assure you.

      However I disagree with your characterization of the Tea Party. It is true that the Koch Brothers fund the Tea Party. However it would exist and be influential without them. The movement is more organic and legitimate than those on the left who demonize them would have us think. The average Tea Partier, organizing, hitting doors, printing up flyers, doesn’t really care about the Koch Brothers.

      When there was a square-off between 5,000 Tea Partiers and 75,000 union protesters on the Capitol Square in Madison it was one of the best examples of American politics I have ever seen. The debate was heated yet respectful, for the most part reasoned, and entirely incident-free. The Tea Party folks, outnumbered fifteen-to-one, are to be commended for their resoluteness and courage in standing for their ideas. There was no Koch-bought artifice about it.

      When we on the left demonize people on the right, as the right so often does with us, we cheapen our own position and our own moral force. I disagree with most of the Tea Party platform. But I respect those in the movement who work hard to promote their views and presence, solidly in the American tradition, even with corporate and moneyed interests polluting the playing field (as they do with Democrats too).

      Finally, Mitt Romney is not the Tea Party candidate. They’re stuck with an old-school moderate Republican who is trying to pretend he’s like them to win an election (and not doing all that good a job at it).

  7. Cris Winters says:

    Right on, Pete! You give a very thoughtful appraisal of the situation. I have received some negative feedback for my decision to vote for the Green Party presidential team this year, with the admonition that I will be “wasting my vote.” To paraphrase Gary Johnson (who participated in the “Third Party” debates as the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate on Tuesday), The only wasted vote is the one made for a person [or party] one doesn’t truly support.

  8. Brian Mann says:

    Pete –

    I’ve been debating with John on the essays that he’s posted, but let me make a couple of points to your argument.

    First, I think the point you’re making about important ideas and movements and their tangential relationship to actual third parties is an important one.

    Third parties in the US have, for the most part, proved to be fluid things, organizing and dissolving around specific coalitions, and often merging eventually with one of the major political parties.

    I don’t think it’s possible to argue that this occurs because of media coverage. I think it reflects larger systemic and cultural factors, not least being the fluid nature of the major parties themselves.

    I think it also reflects some abysmal failings among the third parties themselves.

    The test for ethical journalists is to follow this shifting landscape, to try to suss out which movements, issues, parties, and leaders have significant things to say, or important roles in the political landscape.

    Often, the best story about, say, climate change isn’t a story about Jill Stein or the Green Party. And often the best story about economic conservatism isn’t a story about the Tea Party or the Libertarians.

    –Brian, NCPR

    • Pete Nelson says:


      I agree with what you wrote here, in particular that media coverage is not to blame for the fluidity of third parties.

      Public Radio does more sussing than most – thank goodness – but it remains true that the dominant media forces do less and less of it. To my mind climate change deserves major sussing and the message from the Green Party in this case is cogent, coherent and important.

      • I want to be clear. I’m a Green Party member. But I believe ALL smaller parties should be covered much more, not just mine. There are some worthy ideas in most smaller parties that are ignored by the Dems and GOP.

    • It’s correct to say that the media blacklist is not the only factor behind smaller parties poor showings. There is also the flood of money in politics, which smaller parties can’t compete with. There’s also rigged state electoral laws. And yes, there are systematic problems inside most smaller parties themselves.

      However, it’s completely disingenuous to say that the media blacklist plays no role at all. It’s disingenuous to say that the news media is so critical to good civic participation and our electoral democracy but that the blacklist plays no role in the irrelevance of smaller parties. Either you’re influential and important or you’re not.

      The rare smaller party candidate who gets significant media attention almost invariably closer in the vote totals to the major party candidates than the smaller party candidates who get ignored. Jesse Ventura was at like 6% (the same as Hassig) in the polls until the MN gubernatorial debate, after which he skyrocketed and eventually won. The Progressive Party is treated pretty similar to the Democrats and Republicans in Vermont and does better than probably any other smaller party in the nation; a few years ago, their candidate for governor outpolled the Democrat. The proof is in the pudding.

    • Or to put it a bit less ramblingly — it’s not for the media to decide which candidates are serious. It’s for us the voters to decide that. Give us the facts, all the facts, and let us make up their own minds.

  9. Big Burly says:

    What a profoundly thoughtful piece !

    As a professional during my corporate career I managed news coverage on behalf of my employers and those community groups I volunteered a lot of time for.

    I have watched MSM (NCPR qualifies for that here in the North Country) polarize and ostracize many disparate and dissenting views and movements during my life.

    I know that effective communications by organizations drive the news cycle. News organizations no longer have the resources (some might argue they never had enough) to really cover what happens each day. Skillful practitioners shape what we read and hear — those who report have greater or lesser degrees of competence and integrity. In the main however, journalism as practiced today is a herd mentality career.

    Go to a press conference and watch the media reps. Coverage editors will read the stories in competing media and wonder why their person did not pick up on that part of the story covered by the competition. Rare indeed is the reporter today who refrains from injecting personal bias — that type of news writing should only be reserved for editorials or op eds.

    The Green Party and others would benefit from professional communicators supporting their efforts — much easier to accomplish with all the social media outlets than it used to be.

    If the organization is outside the mainstream, you have to do things out of the ordinary to be heard — Jimmy Carter, for whatever one thinks of him today, became a national figure by driving and walking through communities across the country — his people managed the news.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Excellent points. It is great to have contributors with relevant experience add to the discussion. Thanks.

  10. Paul says:

    So Pete if you cover all the fringe you will only go skin deep.

    You just can’t cover (in depth) some of these parties that, despite your view that they have realistic goals, are simply put – crazy.

    For example climate change is a very serious issue that require serious changes. The Green parties goal of reducing emissions by 95% (yes 95%) from 1990 levels by 2050 is ridiculous. It might fix climate change but there would be no humans left to enjoy the results.

    And they want to do this at the same time they would be spending enormous amounts of money on many other programs as well. These are lofty goals but ones that are just nuts. When the founders contemplated a system that would give a voice to the minority this isn’t what they meant.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Are you talking about the same Green Party that has helped to shape environmental policy worldwide for three decades? The one with an organized party presence in somewhere on the order of 80 countries, totaling millions of members? That Green Party? Crazy?

      What’s crazy – looney crazy – is to ignore climate change, to march like lemmings to the cliff. Because you think their goal is too high you label them crazy, when they alone are pressing the issue?

      I’ll take that version of crazy over the alternative.

      I’m not saying I realistically support 95% reductions (impossible without a massive change in energy technology); I’m saying we should have a serious, immediate and ongoing conversation – including in the media. Dismissing the Green Party as fringe and their ideas as nuts doesn’t do anything toward having a conversation about a deadly serious matter. Your comment is a perfect example of why I wrote my post.

      You can equate the Green Party with the fringe if you like, with the followers of Lyndon LaRouche, let’s say. But remember that you did that, not me. You included them in your version of fringe and claimed I want to cover all equally. And you’d be dead wrong on both counts.

  11. Paul says:

    “What’s crazy – looney crazy – is to ignore climate change, to march like lemmings to the cliff. Because you think their goal is too high you label them crazy, when they alone are pressing the issue?”

    Pete, I was pointing out that the Green parties “extreme” view was unrealistic and on the fringe. Which it is. You come back with the other unrealistic fringe. I agree with you that what you describe above is also loony fringe. That doesn’t make the 95% reduction target any less loony. My point is that if they are going to try and advocate a loony position it is hard not to view them as being on the outside looking in. You can call it “dead wrong” but that is how most folks view it and I think it is accurate.

  12. Pete Nelson says:

    Paul: to suggest the Green Party is a fringe group is ridiculous. You can cherry pick 95% until you’re blue in the face and it doesn’t change anything. They’re legitimate, they’re global, they hold more than 100 elected positions in the US alone and more important they’re much more right and much less off the deep end on climate change than are the two main parties. That’s that.

    Coincidentally, lookie what just posted at the NY Times:

    You’d think I paid them to do that.

    • Paul says:

      Pete, sure they have some legitimate platform positions also. But I think in general they are out there. Myabe not? Sounds like you are a big supporter. Heading up to the Adirondacks early tomorrow. Have a good weekend.

  13. Pete Nelson says:

    And here’s a quote from commentary on the same NY Times article, from Switzerland:

    “In many European countries environmental concerns play a dominant role in parliamentary elections. Originally these issues were the domain of the Green Parties, which have become unignorable forces across Europe. Yet mainstream political parties have increasingly hijacked environmental issues to appeal to “green” voters. ”

    Fringey, eh?

    PS – Brian Mann, the Almanack is now covering the Green Party.

  14. It is insanely difficult to understand and make work the byzantine details of 51 different state/DC electoral laws, some of which are explicitly designed to make it difficult for smaller party and independent candidates. Even more so by parties who lack the huge campaign chests filled with legal corporate bribes. Even more so where every undotted i and uncrossed t will be challenged by the bullying corporate parties looking to lawyer them off the ballot. Anyone who understands this knows what an absolutely gargantuan task it is for a presidential candidate to get on several dozen state ballots.

    So the fact that Jill Stein is on the ballot in 38 states/districts and Gary Johnson is on the ballot in 48 states/districts is, by any fair and reasonable standard, more than enough evidence of widespread grassroots support.

  15. PJ says:

    I voted for Jesse Jackson for president on the Rainbow Party ticket, so I’m open to just about anything. But if third parties are going to be given equal coverage, then they have to be given equal coverage. The money connection between the Tea Party and the Koch brothers would have to be covered–it would be if they were a major party. The position of Green Party members on “trutherism” would have to be covered. Libertarian links to militias would have to be covered. Etc. They can’t just be invited to the debates and then allowed to go home. Hell, even the Republicans would sound great under those rules.

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