On August 1, independent U.S. Senate candidate Joy Allison filed a lawsuit against television stations KHNL and KGMB, collectively known as Hawaii News Now, for not allowing her to appear in a televised debate on the networks. Allison is running for the Senate seat currently held by Democrat Brian Schatz.
Schatz was appointed to the Senate by Governor Neil Abercrombie after the late Sen. Daniel Inouye passed away in 2012, and is currently running for his first full term. He scraped by a tough primary race against congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who currently represents Hawaii's 1st Congressional District, by less than one percent of the vote.
Allison won the no party primary on August 9, but before the election she wanted a debate with the other independent candidate, Art Reyes, or all the candidates not in the Democratic primary (including 4 Republicans). However, she was told that she was not a viable candidate, and neither were any of the candidates outside the Democratic Party.
In recorded phone conversations obtained by IVN between Allison's campaign and KGMB's PM executive producer, Andy Sugg, and Hawaii News Now news director Mark Platte, both men made it clear that the media is solely responsible for deciding the viability of a candidate, not voters.
"Every news station in the country decides at a certain level which candidates are viable," Sugg said.In the campaign's conversation with Platte, he confirmed that the decision to air what debate with which candidates is based on the candidate's viability, what chance he or she has at winning, if they can raise money, or how well they do in polling.
It is important to note that many statewide public opinion polls are conducted by local news organizations and often leave out minor-party and independent candidates.
"We can't do a debate with every grouping of people in every race. It's impossible," Platte explained. He said this includes the Republican candidates in the U.S. Senate race, of which there were four.
Still, this does not answer any questions about why the media gets to decide the viability of a candidate and not voters. If a candidate meets whatever state qualifications there are to appear on the ballot, then that is a legitimate candidate with a legitimate chance.
Besides an ambiguous definition of viability, Platte said one of the main variables that goes into deciding whether or not to feature a candidate or a group of candidates in a debate is name recognition. This ensures that lesser known candidates who simply want voters to know there are alternative choices on the ballot will never get the exposure needed to get this message to the people.
The influence the media has over elections cannot be understated. The media can shift public perception one way or another depending on how they air a story. More so than that, they decide which candidates will get exposure.
Nationwide, candidates not affiliated with either major party are denied access to debates, intentionally kept off surveys, and get minimal news coverage. By reserving coverage to only candidates with name recognition, voters remain uninformed on who the other candidates in the race are and where they stand on the issues.
In a democratic society, voters would like to think they decide candidate viability, but more often than not it is the media that makes this decision for people by deciding which candidates they are exposed to -- and these news networks want to keep it that way.