Who Decides Who Debates?

SHOULD the Federal Elections Commission decide which candidates can participate in debates? That's the question behind a complaint CBS and a few other news organizations filed with the FEC.

They want a rule changed which states a news organization's sponsorship of a debate can be considered an illegal corporate campaign contribution, punishable as a crime, unless the candidates are selected with "pre-established objective criteria."

The FEC doesn't make clear what those criteria are. Third-party candidates such as the Green Party's Ralph Nader, have been complaining they – and their political views – are left out of the national debate because they have not been included in formal televised debates. And they've used the FEC rule as an argument in their own legal actions.

Further gumming up the works is the Presidential Commission on Debates, which requires a candidate have at least 15 percent of support in national polls to qualify for inclusion in debates. The commission does that so that it can accept corporate contributions within FEC rules. All Nader has received so far from the FEC is $25,000 and an apology for keeping him out of an October 2000 debate.

As a simple First Amendment issue, news organizations should be free to make decisions about whom to include, and exclude, in debates. They should, of course, be mindful that third-party candidates do have a following and, often, views worth airing.

The media's power to elevate a candidate to prominence, and hence, electability, should not be underestimated. But broadcasters should be able to decide for themselves whether so-called fringe candidates add to the public debate.

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