I’m writing this on the day of the first debates between candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination. When I walked into our studio this morning one of our staff members was commenting with surprise that the debates weren’t accessible online without a Fox News Channel subscriber password. I must confess, before today I haven’t paid a great deal of attention to how the debates were being made available to the public. I’ve been well aware of the intrigue and controversy surrounding how Fox News was sponsoring the debates and selecting the candidates that would participate in the “main event” based on recent national polls. I had assumed that Fox as a network along with its local affiliates would be televising the debates, making them available to virtually all television viewers. When I clued into the fact that the debates would exclusively be broadcast on the Fox News Channel, which is only available on paid cable and satellite services, and is offered as a premium channel on many services, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that this was possible and did a quick Internet search to confirm what I had heard — which turned out to be true.
In an era when virtually everyone complains about the destructive force of hyper-partisanship in government, it amazes me that our political parties, government leaders and media institutions continue to find ways to make things worse. Here are the problems with Fox’s exclusive management and broadcast of the first Republican debates:
1. It makes participation in our democracy dependent on access to paid media versus the simple desire of a citizen to become an informed voter. It discriminates against citizens who can’t afford, or don’t choose to pay, a $75 or more monthly cable/ satellite television subscription, making them rely on filtered reports of what candidates said instead of hearing and seeing for themselves in real time. We still have free over-the-air broadcast channels for a reason. And the press has a protected role in the Constitution for a reason — it’s an essential element of a functioning democracy, not a luxury.
2. The amount of time voters hear candidates speaking for themselves needs to be increased, not limited. While I have no doubt that many voters will be burnt out by the media coverage of this presidential election cycle when Election Day ultimately rolls around in November 2016, most election coverage is comprised of the opinions of political pundits and the speculation of professional prognosticators who cover the election as if it were a sporting event. If candidates had more opportunity to speak for themselves before a live national audience, this noise would be less influential. The proper role of media organizations is to fact check claims made by candidates and clarify policy positions for voters.
3. Partisan media organizations should not control real tools of our democracy, such as debates. Fox News was established in 1996 with the unabashed goal of being a conservative media organization to balance what its founders perceived as the liberal bias of every other news media outlet. Fox News’ chairman, Roger Ailes, has been quoted as saying, “I want to elect the next President” to a group of Fox News executives. Fox doesn’t apologize for its perspective, although its slogan “fair and balanced” is still a mystery to me. Organizations like Fox, or MSNBC on the other side of the political spectrum, should not run and control debates. A Democratic Party debate hosted by Rachel Maddow and broadcast exclusively on MSNBC would be just as harmful to our democratic process. Debates need to be moderated by skilled and respected journalists without the political baggage that rightfully comes with working for partisan media organizations.
Media literacy has become an essential part of understanding the world in today’s information age. If information is power in a democratic society, we need to work diligently to preserve the power of citizens with free access to information about our world from trusted sources. Based on the first Republican Party debate, we have work to do.
Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.