Donna Edwards v. Al Wynn: A Microcosm in More Ways Than One

Art Brodsky has written an excellent blog post at TPMCafe on how progressive lawyer Donna Edwards’ demorcatic primary challenge for incumbent democrat Al Wynn’s seat has gone virtually unnoticed in the press.

Like the much better covered competition between incumbent Joe Leiberman and challenger Ned Lamont, the Edwards/Wynn race pits frustrated progressive democrats against a multi-term incumbent they feel has become too much a part of the system. But for all the coverage of the challenge to Senator Joe Leiberman up in Connecticut, no one in my local media has seen fit to cover exactly the same sort of challenge right here in our own backyard.

This makes the Edwards/Wynn race much more a microcosm for elections around the country. We bemoan the high rate of incumbent reelection, but fail to notice the local media plays in all this. Not by exhibiting famed media bias, but by refusing to cover local races, denying challengers an opportunity to discuss issues with the electorate and denying challengers the exposure they need to overcome the enormous advantage an incumbent has in name recognition and organization.

Contrary to popular belief, we really can do something to give challengers like Donna Edwards a fighting chance to get the exposure they need to make incumbents actively defend their seats and worry about being accountable to voters every two years. The FCC has siting in front of it a rulemaking that would give candidates free air time and force broadcasters to provide substantive coverage of local news.

At the same time, the FCC also has in front of it proposals that would make the situation for political challengers even more difficult. If the Republican majority on the FCC succeeds in relaxing the media ownership rules and allows the same company to own a daily paper, up to three television stations, the local cable system, and radio stations all in the same market, that company decides who gets exposure and who disappears from view. The odds may be bad for challengers now, but they could indeed be much worse.

Details below.

[A few caveats in order first — I know Donna because she works for the Arca Foundation, which funds both media reform generally and my employer, Media Access Project, specifically. If you think that impacts my views, so be it.]

In his blog post, Art Brodsky focuses on the Washington Post and a number of even more local papers it owns in the 4th District (mostly Prince George’s county) and neighboring counties. And, in fact, this lack of coverage is indeed remarkable. The Post (and the local Gazzette chain it owns) generally do a good job on local coverage and local races. And why is it that a newspaper that writes an article about Commedian Kinky Friedman’s run for governor of Texas can’t do a story on a significant challenge to a local incumbent?

The cynical may observe that Wynn and the Post editorial page frequently agree. Both, for example, opposed Net Neutrality legislation (Edwards supports it) and both initially supported the War in Iraq (Edwards opposed it). But can this really account for such complete silence?

And, it’s not just the Post. A search on Google news turns up few articles on Donna Edwards and her race. This piece from the PG & Motgomery County Sentinel on Edwards’ endorsement by the League of Conservation voters, a piece in Forbes suggesting that Edwards’ success at fundraising comes from leveraging her pro-Net Neutrality stand, and this piece placing her in context as an anti-war Democrat opposing a Democrat who voted for the war.

None of the local media seem to be covering what appears to be a reasonably contested local race. Perhaps they’ll cover it as we get closer to our September primary, but why not now? I mean, c’mon, how many more articles and stories do we need in the “boy is it hot” category as opposed to the news category.

This is yet another reason why I believe we need both limits on media ownership and rules that require broadcasters to cover local races and give free time to candidates (what we media reform types often refer to as public interest obligations). We hear over and over again about how incumbents win an incredible percentage of the time and have all manner of explanations — most of them blaming voters or citizens for not getting involved and bemoaning our current apathetic generation.

But if you ask anyone who has tried to mount a campaign against an incumbent, they’ll tell you the biggest problem is getting exposure. Most news media outlets already do a terrible job on local news and assume coverage of political issues is a big snooze. Add to that the concern that crossing an incumbent who will most likely win reelection does not win you any favors you may need in the future, and it becomes impossible to get any exposure short of paying the outrageous prices demanded for political advertisements (and thus perpetuating the influence of big money on the system).

Many broadcasters cover themselves by inviting candidates on to debate, but incumbents almost always to say no. The broadcasters then shrug and say “well, we were willing to give air time to a debate, but the incumbent said no and having just you on would be ‘unbalanced.’”

Why do incumbents refuse debates unless, like Leiberman, they find themselves in deep trouble. Because incumbents understand perfectly well that the biggest advanatge they have is name recognition. Sure, many people cannot name their Congressional representative, but even fewer have ever heard of the opponent. Keep exposure for your opponent down, play the machine, and saturate the airwaves with advertisements is the standard (and usually winning) strategy.

Would that more broadcasters responded like Steven Colbert. After interviewing Challenger Ned Lamont, Colbert invited Leiberman on the Colbert Report to provide his perspective. Leiberman refused. Every night since, Colbert has shown an empty chair and offered all kinds of “inducements” for Leiberman to come on the show. (Colbert’s excellent commentary on the primary challenge here.)

If broadcasters wanted to provide more coverage challenges to incumbents (or other political issues on the ballot for that matter), they could. If they gave a challenger a free five minutes rather than only agreeing to a debate, you can bet that the incumbent would demand his free five minutes (federal law requires that if you give free time to one candidate, you need to give the same amount of free time to another). If broadcasters provided adequate coverage, then local newspapers would follow along. Because it would be news, and rather hard to explain why the local broadcasters cover it but the local paper — which supposedly provides better and deeper analysis of issues — can’t be bothered.

The FCC has long had before it proposals for new public interest obligations on broadcasters as they transition to digital television. You can find more details on the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition website. Briefly, broadcasters have gotten billions (probably hundreds of billions in today’s estimations) of free spectrum as part of the transition to digital television on a theory that doing so “serves the public interest, convenience and necessity.” A number of organization want to see this phrase from the Communications Act given some real meaning with a few actual concrete responsibilities — including free air time for candidates and coverage of local issues.

Needless to say, this proposal has sat on the FCC Chairman’s desk without moving since the Republicans took over.

Of course, while possible to make the current situation better, it can also get made far, far worse. Hence my concern with the latest FCC effort to relax the media ownership rules. In particular, FCC Chairman Martin intends to eliminate the rule that prevents anyone from owning newspapers (like the Washington Post) and broadcast (radio or television) stations in the same market.

Let’s assume that, for some reason, the Washington Post really does prefer Wynn and wants Edwards to lose. Right now, they can block one avenue of coverage (the daily paper), but the independence of broadcasters in the market acts (at least in theory) as a check on their power to control exposure and coverage.

If the rule goes away, the Washington post could own daily papers, television stations and radio stations all over the region. Instead of just one endorsement from the Washington Post, Wynn would get one from the Post, another from local television stations (possibly up to three in a market), and another from local radio stations. Wow! Wouldn’t Wynn seem real popular! And most folks would never know that this was just the same company talking through a half dozen or more media voices, because how many people keep track of who owns what in their media market? (You can find out using the Center for Public Integrity Media Finder.)

Now throw in that all the news coverage starts to go one way — a surprising amount of agreement among radio, television and newspaper coverage on what a great job the incumbent is doing. Would this have an impact on how people get their information and make decisions? Call my cynical and out of touch, but despite access to the internet, I think it would have very significant impact. My brother and sister-in-law used to live in Dayton, OH, a market where Sinclair owns two stations in the market and programs a third through what is called a “local marketing agreement” (a way to evade the existing onwership limits). As my sister-in-law occassionally observes to me “the news coverage out here is totally different from what we got in Dayton. People never hear about half of this stuff and the only thing people hear about are how its important to support the President and the War.”

Of course, the fact that Dayton is home to a major Air Force base may account for this particular slant. Or the fact that Sinclair has used its power over media outlets to block stories with which it does not agree, while promoting points of view with which they agree may have something to do with what people in Dayton, OH see and hear about. Which, if I understand my sister-in-law correctly, does have a great deal to do with how folks in Dayton decide who to vote for and why.

As Dayton goes, so goes the nation . . . .

To conclude, I happen to support Donna Edwards and would like to see her win (for the first time, I’m sorry I got redistricted out of the 4th district in 2000). But, more importantly, I’d like to see every Donna Edwards challenging an incumbent have a real chance at getting heard.

Stay tuned . . . .

Comments are closed.