Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Noted in passing

Even though I have not been following the primaries in any detail, I had thought I might watch the Democratic debate tonight, just for the heck of it.

Forget it.

I expect you know the story: MSNBC made a corporate decision to change one of the criteria for inclusion in the debate from being among the top four nationally to being among to top three. The result of what was essentially a last-minute move was to exclude Dennis Kucinich from the debate after having already invited him and receiving his acceptance.

Kucinich sued on grounds of breach of contract and won in lower court. MSNBC, after first appearing to shrug its shoulders, changed its mind (again) and appealed. Just 15 minutes before the debate was to start, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed and Dennis was gone.

Now, as I understand it, the underlying legal issue revolved around what constituted an enforceable contract under Nevada law. So in legal terms, the court's decision may have been entirely correct.

In ethical terms, MSNBC's decision sucked royally.

But the reason for this post is to offer a quick speculation as to why this happened. MSNBC claimed, feebly but unsurprisingly, that it made the change and went to court to enforce it because it would "better serve the public" to focus on the top three candidates. But that situation of there being a Clinton-Obama-Edwards troika and then "some other guys" had existed for months. So why now? What changed now?

My suspicion is that until almost the last minute, MSNBC brass thought the fourth for bridge would be Bill Richardson. Now, while Richardson does hold some reasonably liberal views, particularly on the environment, and was clearly better than the troika on the war, he is still basically an establishment candidate with establishment credentials in a way that Dennis Kucinich clearly is not.

When Richardson dropped out, that made Kucinich the fourth-place candidate by default. Initially, network staff proceeded with the plan as set down and invited him. But after he accepted, the fact registered on network honchos who made the determination that there was no way they were going to let him on that stage.

I'm not suggesting that the network is "terrified" of Kucinich or any such nonsense; I'm suggesting that a corporate decision was made to exclude non-establishment voices. After all, if the original requirement had been to be among the top three, I expect there would have been a lot of grousing but the issue really never would have arisen.

When Kucinich accepted the invitation, corporate brass could have said. "Oops. Oh, well."

When the lower court ruled in Kucinich's favor, corporate brass could have shrugged their shoulders and said "Hey, BFD."

But they didn't. Instead they changed the rules at, again, essentially the last minute and fought in court to keep it that way. It's easy to see why it was so important to Kucinich to get in the debate. It's harder but more important to see why it was so important to MSNBC to keep him out.

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