TV as Gatekeeper

Media heads decide which candidates get airtime

SO few Americans know who Larry Agran is that most surveys of presidential-candidate name recognition neglect even to ask about him.

Yet the name of this former mayor of Irvine, Calif., will appear on Democratic primary ballots in 37 states.

What condemned Mr. Agran and fellow Democratic candidates such as former United States Sen. Eugene McCarthy to political oblivion long before the first vote was cast? The single most critical gate that neither candidate could pry open this campaign was inclusion in the four debates run by the television networks.

The gate-keepers in each case were network news executives who, according to Democratic Party officials, hold sole discretion over the debate panels.

The field of candidates is far more open and uncontrolled than half a century ago, when the legendary "smoke-filled rooms" of party politicos set the candidate field. But the nearest modern cousins to those power brokers now work in the news media.

"Now it is almost impossible to be taken seriously as a national candidate if you're not seen on those debates," says Agran. Credibility with financial contributors and attention in the news media are all shut off without debate appearances, which define the choice of candidates for most voters, he says. When he pressed news executives on how they picked which candidates made the cut and which did not, the essential answer was a vague one: news judgment.

Mr. McCarthy puts the power of the media in starker terms: "If you're not covered, you're not a candidate." "It's really finally arbitrary," he says of media judgments. "What is the writ? You know, what is the source of their power to do this?"

Whatever the writ, media judgments are harnessed by convention and follow cautiously in the footsteps of consensus. Political scientists, studying how reporters, editors, and producers determine who they cover and how much, have arrived at four basic measures of whether to take a candidate seriously.

* Whether the candidate qualifies for federal matching funds. (Agran and McCarthy have not yet. The New Alliance Party's Lenora Fulani has, but she also has been excluded from network debates and mainstream coverage.)

* The candidate's standing in national polls.

* The candidate's apparent strength in states that vote early, offering a chance to win coverage and momentum early on.

* How many endorsements a candidate has from prominent politicians.

Martin Wattenberg, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, says that veteran newspaper journalists such as Washington Post reporter and columnist David Broder, Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief Jack Nelson, and New York Times reporter R. W. Apple tend to lead the consensus.

The central exchange for conventional wisdom, the electronic cracker barrel, is the Campaign Hotline, a daily digest of national political news, factoids, slants, rumors, and speculation that helps journalists and political professions grasp the state of the campaign.

Ted Van Dyk, a veteran of Democratic campaigns and now a Tsongas adviser, says that a bias creeps into reporters' judgment that he calls an "unconscious rooting factor." Many political reporters tend to like Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, he says, so when Clinton finished second in New Hampshire and launched his media "spin control" by calling himself the "comeback kid," reporters bought it.

"Clinton was the comeback kid because the press was predisposed to believe it," he says.

The candidate field is largely self-selected in this age of the entreprenuerial candidate. Like any entrepreneur, a candidate must persuade investors to take a risk on him. Mr. Clinton used Arkansas donors as his fund-raising base, Paul Tsongas used the Greek community. Jerry Brown defied this rule of the campaign road altogether with his low-budget campaign financed by a toll-free 800 number that accepts only small donations.

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