Is the Media Trying to Set the 2004 Election Agenda?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, Dec. 11, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.


DENNIS KUCINICH (D-OH) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With all due respect to you Ted Kopple (search), who I've admired over the years greatly ...

TED KOPPLE: There is a zinger coming now, isn't there?

KUCINICH: Yes. To begin this kind of a forum with a question about an endorsement, no matter by who, I think actually trivializes the issues that are before us.


KIRAN CHETRY, GUEST HOST: That is Dennis Kucinich (search) of Ohio... criticizing Ted Koppel for his coverage of the presidential campaign. And now there's word ABC News is actually pulling some producers away from three of the candidates' campaigns, including Kucinich, as well as Carol Mosely-Braun (search) and the Reverend Al Sharpton (search).

Hugo Gurdon is the editor in chief of The Hill newspaper, and he is here to answer today's big question. Is the media try to set the agenda for this election? What do you think?

HUGO GURDON, EDITOR OF THE HILL: Thanks Kiran. Of course, the media tries to set the agenda to some extent. But I think the problem that took place at the debate was that three of the candidates were treated as marginal. And I think that a lot of people, particularly those obviously in the audience, thought that that wasn't appropriate.

CHETRY: All right. Former Congressman Kucinich. He was actually trading barbs with Ted Kopple throughout the night. And he said, he criticized him for dwelling on the Gore-Dean endorsement, rather than talking about some of the issues like the war in Iraq. You know, when the moderator spends a lot of time talking about that, it really does reflect on the one candidate who got the endorsement, the big-name endorsement and some of the other candidates responding to it. Does that take away from the everyday people getting a chance to know some of the viewpoints and where these candidates stand on issues like Iraq, the economy, other things like that?

GURDON: Yes, I think it does. I think it does. I think the mistake that Ted Koppel made was to treat the debate as though it were an inside Washington discussion between people who are following this campaign minute-by-minute, day-by-day. The debates are set up to suggest complete equality between the candidates and is it a chance for the voting public to assess them. And so, whilst I think it is perfectly appropriate for a news organization to discuss whether or not they should devote resources to a candidate or pull a producer, etc., I think that in these debates, the public expects a certain even-handedness.

CHETRY: One of the questions that Koppel asked Dennis Kucinich: “You're not doing terribly well with money, you're doing even worse in the polls. When do you pull out?” was the question. Kucinich responded by saying, “I want the American public to see that the media takes — how they take politics in this country. We talk about endorsements, then we talk about polls and then we talk about money and we don't talk about what's important to the American people.” Does he have a point there?

GURDON: Yes, he certainly has a point. There is a very strong tendency in the media and we all have to resist it to the extent that is appropriate in our different media, to treat politics only as a horse race and not as an issue of government. And who would be good in the executive branch, who would be the right person in the White House. So, yes, he does have a point.

CHETRY: So, you know, these people haven't raised a lot of money, Kucinich hasn't, as well as Carol Moseley-Braun as well as Al Sharpton. They're not viewed, I guess, generally as viable candidates. Who makes that decision and if we gave them more of a chance and more coverage, would it possibly change for them?

GURDON: I don't suppose that it would change. The point that I would want to make is this — news organizations can say, “Look, these people are marginal candidates as far as we're concerned. And we are, therefore, not going to devote as many resources to them.” But these debates are set up with the candidates in a row, nine candidates standing there with podiums all exactly the same. The idea is to suggest even-handedness, allow them to debate the issues that the American people want to hear about. And so to then say, “Right, you three, you're marginal. Why aren't you pulling out?” And then to ask the other candidates, you know, what you think about the state of the horse race is, I think, probably not the appropriate forum.

CHETRY: All right. Well, Hugo Gurdon, editor in chief of The Hill newspaper, thanks for being with us.

GURDON: Thank you.

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