To Cover, or not to Cover: The Johnson Campaign Question

On Sept. 8, Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” talk show and left many viewers scratching their heads.

When asked what he planned to do about Syria’s Aleppo, Johnson blanked and asked “what is Aleppo?” ABC, CBS and NBC ran with the story.

Tweets with with the hashtag #whatisaleppo voiced dismay with Johnson’s apparent ignorance.

ABC, CBS, and NBC all covered the blunder Thursday evening. But the next night, none of the networks mentioned Johnson or offered any follow-up coverage.

Johnson is currently set to capture 8 percent of the general election votes, according to a CBS News and New York Times poll conducted from Sept. 9 to Sept 13. And according to USA Today, Johnson’s Facebook page from Sept. 8 to Sept. 11 received more than double its usual online traffic.

Though he fell short of the 15 percent threshold needed to make it onto the debate stage, Johnson could potentially spoil the election for one of his opponents, as third party candidates Ross Perot and Ralph Nader did in past cycles.

Considering this, why have the networks largely ignored Johnson until this gaffe? And will they continue to do so for the remainder of the election?

According to NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, the evening news likely lacks the time to devote to minor party coverage.

“You only have so much real estate to devote in airtime,” he said. “So if you take everything equally, are you serving the citizens best given how unlikely it is for him to win?”

In contrast, Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik said the lack of third party coverage indicates the media’s failure to provide meaningful content to consumers because of commercial interests.

“Television has this tremendous power to set the mainstream agenda,” Zurawik said.  “Television gives over coverage to candidates like Trump because it’s good business, and it under covers third party candidates. The net effect is that it marginalizes them in viewers’ minds. ”

Though television now competes with digital media sources for viewers, Zurawik said its power to influence American electorate remains paramount.

“It’s a responsibility that television doesn’t take seriously when it comes to politics enough,” he said.  “I think television has not served democracy well at all, particularly in this election.”

In a campaign characterized by distrust and record-low favorability ratings of the major party nominees, are the networks obliged to cover the minor parties?

More from David Folkenflik:

  • “The part of the problem I have is that I hate for that to be one of the bigger stories about the guy.  He represents a train of thought. He has been a successful politician in his state. But he isn’t known at the national level.”
  • “Johnson does pretty well in some states. I’m in favor of giving more space.”
  • “On the cable networks and on the morning shows, you see more real estate devoted to the third party candidates. They won’t treat them as equals. In other countries you tend you see better treatment. In those countries, they play more important roles.”
  • “It’s a chicken and eggs thing. If the media did that for third party candidates here more often with voters, the electorate would give them much more authority.”
  • “Ralph Nader changed the course of history. That’s a way even in America, third party candidates can have significant outcomes on elections.”

More from David Zurawik:

  • “Television and all commercial media have a commercial interest. But with television, the form that takes is that they have to get ratings, so that they get advertising, so that they make money.”
  • “Trump for example – more ‘show biz’ attractive than Gary Johnson is or Jill Stein. People know him already and know him as a TV personality.  People know know he might say something outrageous, it’s engaging and they tune in.”
  • “People in TV and things on TV are important. Sort of how things are manufactured in this culture. Television is still the principle storyteller of American life; it’s still the one that defines the narrative.”

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