I recently experienced what was undoubtedly the most depressing experience of my journalistic career. I'm used to being stonewalled with half-answers by politicians, but I never expected to get the same treatment from fellow journalists. That's just what happened when I wrote a report on why Libertarian candidate for Iowa governor Jake Porter is being excluded from a debate hosted by KCCI television and the Des Moines Register.
Bring on the Fudge
Porter appears to be polling about 6%, and is the winner of Iowa's first-ever Libertarian primary for governor. Now legally recognized as Iowa's third major party, Libertarians are widely seen as deserving a seat at the table.
When I read a KCCI editorial justifying the station's decision to exclude Jake Porter from its October 10 debate, something didn't add up. I suspected there was more to the story.
KCCI cited a series of criteria for inclusion in debates, and claimed that these were standard practice.
“We’ve always relied on various, readily available, objective criteria to help with our determination," they said.
I contacted the station. The news director sent me a copy of the letter they had sent to Porter about their decision, and said, "It will be the only response."
But the letter only threw up more questions. The explanation contained some decidedly fudge-filled language. One phrase, "a variety of objective factors were considered, including, among other things," de facto meant KCCI was not releasing its full list of criteria for debate inclusion. This appeared to make it impossible for anyone to know how they actually arrived at their decision.
I asked for the full list. I also asked if this criteria was a longstanding policy. This time the station president and general manager emailed me to say my questions were answered in the letter. I reread the letter several times. For the life of me, I couldn't find any answers to my questions.
So I went to the Des Moines Register. The paper is co-hosting the debate, but I wasn't sure if they were involved in the decision to exclude Porter.
It turns out they were.
The newspaper's executive editor replied to me, saying, "That was a joint decision made by the Register and KCCI, and I represented the Register in those discussions. Since you’ve spoken with representatives of KCCI, I see no reason to respond further."
2014: A More Inclusive Time
I became more determined to get to the bottom of the issue when I discovered video of a six-way televised debate held by KCCI and the Register in 2014. This one was held for Republican candidates for Iowa's 3rd Congressional District. One of the candidates included, Joe Grandanette, appeared to fall foul of the criteria the media outlets claimed they had always followed.
Jake Porter has raised much more money in 2018 than Joe Grandanette did in 2014.
Jake Porter is currently enjoying about three times as much support in the polls in 2018 as Joe Grandanette had before the debate in 2014 (he went on to receive 1.6% of the vote in the GOP primary).
And Grandanette confirmed to me that in 2014, KCCI never mentioned any criteria to him, or asked him to provide any evidence to demonstrate that he was a strong enough candidate to be included in the debate.
I asked KCCI and the Register to explain this, but neither replied.
What's worse, a tweet from a communications officer in the Democratic campaign strongly implied that Governor Kim Reynold's campaign had pressured debate organizers to exclude Porter. If true, this would mean a sitting governor was trying to prevent Iowa's top media outlets from providing equal coverage to one of Iowa's three legally-recognized major parties.
Surely this deserved a response. Perhaps at least a denial?
I got nothing.
The whole experience was a real shock. As leaders in the mainstream, professional media, especially at a time when media are constantly under attack by our president and much of Congress for being "fake news," I really expected to get more engagement with what I thought were entirely legitimate questions. These questions were, after all, no tougher than the sorts of questions KCCI and the Register ask elected officials on a regular basis.
KCCI and the Register are free to invite whoever they want to their debate, of course. They are privately-owned organizations. But if they want to keep the trust of their respective viewers and readers, I think they need to provide a better, more transparent explanation for what appears to be a departure from their normal standards.
Both organizations benefit from a rich history of providing Iowans with differing points of view. The Register hosts a "soapbox" at ever Iowa State Fair, where all candidates are allowed twenty minutes to say whatever they want to say. These speeches are regularly profiled in the paper itself, providing valuable media coverage lower-profile candidates who often struggle to break through.
Likewise, KCCI takes pride in its tradition of not restricting political speech. In a December 2017 editorial the station wrote: "We feel it’s better to have you hear what’s out there and make up your own mind about it. One of the great benefits local broadcasters like KCCI provide is a platform for political debate without us taking sides."
But now KCCI is openly telling its viewers that there are only two sides worth hearing from in the upcoming gubernatorial debate: "The debate we think best helps the electorate make a decision this fall -- is between Fred Hubbell and Kim Reynolds."
KCCI and the Register should be free to change their policies. They should be free to be inconsistent. But they should feel beholden enough to their viewers and readers to be transparent about it.