BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, MSNBC staged a debate among Democratic presidential candidates.
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MALE COMMENTATOR: Tonight, with the next crucial contest, the Nevada caucuses just days away, for the first time it’s down to three.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Originally it was supposed to be down to four candidates, but just before it was to be held, MSNBC changed its mind, deciding to go with the top three candidates instead, leaving out Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. He swiftly filed suit, changing breach of contract, and a judge ruled that if he was left out, the debate could not take place.
At the last minute, the Nevada Supreme Court stepped in and overturned the lower court’s decision, saying that the agreement between Kucinich and MSNBC was not a legal contract and that prior restraint – that is, stopping the debate before a violation had even been committed – would be an overreaction. So Tuesday night’s debate proceeded without Democrat number four.
Dennis Kucinich says it’s not just the legal decision with which he disagrees.
DENNIS KUCINICH: It’s the principle of whether or not General Electric, which owns NBC, should be in a position of being able to stage a debate with candidates who they've supported financially and limit the debate so that the issues that would be against General Electric’s financial interests would not have a chance to be discussed – for example, nuclear power or the war in Iraq.
You know, GE makes nuclear power plants. I'm for a nuclear-free energy policy. They make money off the war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re saying that the programmers at MSNBC, or NBC, are taking marching orders from GE and aren't just trying to create a more coherent environment in which ideas can be discussed at length with fewer candidates.
DENNIS KUCINICH: I think it’s absolutely naive to think that General Electric would not have a hand in this kind of a decision where their corporate interests are at stake.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob Franken, a correspondent for MSNBC, wrote in The Huffington Post, you had your chance. Quote “NBC finally concluded that the time had come for an uncluttered competition between the three who had any chance whatsoever of making the Democratic nomination.”
If GE was so dead set keeping you off the air, you wouldn't have participated in all those previous debates.
DENNIS KUCINICH: But you know what, though? With a larger field these issues don't come into focus, but with a smaller field they do. Having been excluded now from the fourth debate, this is part of an effort to try to basically create a presidential debate where there’s really no differences at all.
General Electric generally doesn't want to have their truth out, and this four-person debate would have been a great place to be able to see the differences not just between the candidates but see where the real truths that lie in this election that the American people have a right to hear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I understand that you feel that these ideas have not gotten a full airing on television. I think that’s probably true. But aren't you basically saying that all the candidates polling less than you shouldn't be there cluttering it up? You’re setting the standard at four. NBC set its standard at three candidates.
DENNIS KUCINICH: I've established that I met the criteria that NBC first set and they established by giving me an invitation. But a much bigger matter than my candidacy, you know, the media today can decide who’s a candidate based on who they cover and they can decide who’s a candidate based on who they let into a debate. That’s not good for democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: People often exaggerate the power of the media. The media certainly didn't create the campaign, for instance, this time around for Mike Huckabee nor did they create the campaign for Jimmy Carter years and years ago. It was the voters that did that.
And although I understand and respect your objection to media ownership and the concentration of ownership, isn't it better that the government stay out of deciding who is on the air?
DENNIS KUCINICH: Actually, no. This is a fundamental right of democratic society, have a free media. But the idea of broadcast media not being regulated is a problem, I mean, because the airwaves belong to the public. They don't belong to NBC.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a cable network which doesn't use public airwaves. Aren't they free legally to do as they wish?
DENNIS KUCINICH: Actually, they have to sign, in many cases, agreements with communities to be able to have cable franchises in local communities that then carry these stations. And it’s very closely patterning the FCC Act of 1934, which says that broadcast media must serve in the public interest, convenience and necessity.
Now, either we have to bring cable networks into correspondence with the FCC Act of 1934 or we have to look at the underlying concerns – for example, defense contractors being involved through business relationship with media interests or of media executives being able to make contributions to presidential campaigns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One point on which the Nevada Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court was on the issue of prior restraint. Even if you had been within your legal rights, Congressman, to object, no crime would have been committed until the debate began. Don't you think that preventing an event from taking place ahead of time —
DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, you know, that was -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - is another dangerous precedent?
DENNIS KUCINICH: I've never tried to say what should or shouldn't go on the air. What we argued is that it’s up to the judge to determine what he felt was an effective remedy.
But I will tell you this, that this legal action isn't over with yet because there are other elements of law here that haven't yet been explored to which GE and NBC will be held accountable. My attorneys have determined that there’s reasons to pursue this matter civilly, and we're going to do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
DENNIS KUCINICH: Pleasure to be on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.