Minor Party Candidates, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, Left Out of ABC Broadcast

On Sept. 16, voters learned Gary Johnson and Jill Stein did not qualify for the Sept. 26 debate. CBS and NBC reported the news in fewer than 20 seconds.

CBS News

Scott Pelley for CBS: “None of the minor party candidates made the cut for the first debate. They needed to poll at least 15 percent.”

NBC News

Lester Holt for NBC: “Third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein don’t have enough support in the polls to be included at the first debate.”

Given how contested this campaign cycle has been, ABC’s failure to even mention the minor party candidates on Sep. 16, raises the question: what obligation do broadcasts have to cover third-party candidates?

According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, polling averages were: 43 percent for Hillary Clinton, 40.4 percent for Donald Trump, 8.4 percent for Gary Johnson, and 3.2 percent for Jill Stein. In a tight contest, an alternative candidate to the establishment can swing an election.

In October 1992, independent Ross Perot polled at 8 percent. On election day 19 million people voted for Perot. Bill Clinton won the popular vote by 5 million over incumbent George H.W. Bush.

Had Perot not received those votes, Bush might have won. Johnson could also take votes away during this election.

Do networks have a journalistic obligation to cover third-party candidates? Aside from limited air time, what affects a minor party candidate’s ability to make the news in a close race?

According to Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute, networks are not obligated. Rather, “Third parties need to earn their coverage by saying important things, winning over voters in new channels, [and] generating excitement.”

For Andrew Tyndall, Publisher of the Tyndall Report, “The onus is is on the third party candidates themselves to intervene in the race in a newsworthy enough fashion to pique the interest of the [networks.]”

More from the pros:

Tom Rosenstiel:

  • “Networks do not have an obligation to cover third party candidates, or fourth or even low polling candidates inside the main parties.”
  • “With so many outlets and candidates more in control of reaching people directly, a gifted candidate could easily get to 20% in the polls before they get mainstream media attention.”

Andrew Tyndall:

  • “If it turns out that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chances of winning depend on her ability to get out the young adult vote… and it turns out that the third party candidates are making significant inroads in that demographic, then such a development is newsworthy, and network news viewers would be badly served if they were not apprised of it.”
  • “Under those circumstances the networks would be journalistically obliged not only to acknowledge that development, but also to report on it, explain it, and account for it.”

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