Non-incumbent Politicians on Television and Radio: Problematic Only to Single Party Advocates
–Richard E. Vatz
My friend at The Baltimore Sun (no, discerning readers, that is not an oxymoron), David Zurawik, last week wrote on his “Z on TV” blog that former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and a variety of politicians’ regular appearances on radio and television “raises the not insignificant question of whether or not politicians who are still very [much] in the game [of] getting elected should be given airtime on news channels and news programs to promulgate their partisan views — and campaign.” His real target may have been revealed in his following sentence: “This extends beyond Huckabee to folks like Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., the former Republican congressman and governor of Maryland who appears on WMAR-Channel 2 in Baltimore and WBAL-AM radio.”
Mr. Zurawik goes on to say that there is a significant issue regarding “whether news channels and programs should be providing partisan politicians” forums for political opining and that in addition to Huckabee, he is “far more troubled by Ehrlich sitting on the news set of an ABC affiliate, as he does at WMAR, interacting with news anchors and commenting on politics and news…because he is being allowed to wrap himself and his highly partisan words in the mantle of the credibility and impartiality that such news operations are supposed to embody.” From that premise Mr. Zurawik concludes that Gov. Ehrlich’s commentary “is especially problematic in his case, because as governor, Ehrlich showed an absolute disdain for the press and the public’s right to get information from a variety of sources when he blocked access to his administration and state government to a reporter from the Sun whose coverage did not meet with Ehrlich’s approval.”
Mr. Zurawik, an intelligent writer, in this case utilizes false premises and then non sequiturs in reaching his illogical conclusion.
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How many errors of reasoning inhabit his analysis? Let me count the errancies:
First: If news channels do not provide opportunities for office-aspiring politicians to opine, and in Mr. Zurawik’s accusation, to “campaign,” the media opportunities will be available only to incumbents who, while ostensibly are giving opinions on issues of the day, are really in a never-ending campaign for re-election or election to a higher office. When Gov. O’Malley rhetorically supports his tax bill on Maryland media — and especially when he takes shots at the Ehrlich Administration of 2003-2007 — does anyone think this is non-political, non-campaigning?
Second: Mr. Zurawik is simply incorrect when he states that a non-office-holding candidate giving even regular news commentary on television or radio unfairly benefits from “the mantle of the credibility and impartiality that such news operations are supposed to embody.” No one — and this might be literally true that NO ONE — infers from Gov. Robert Ehrlich or any politician that his or her critical perspectives do not come from conservative or liberal principles, or that they are disinterested opinions.
Third: Mr. Zurawik’s argues that Gov. Ehrlich’s appearances on radio and television are particularly problematic because of his “absolute disdain for the press and the public’s right to get information from a variety of sources when he blocked access to his administration and state government to a reporter from the Sun whose coverage did not meet with Ehrlich’s approval.” Not only can I tell you authoritatively that Gov. Ehrlich does not disdain the press per se, but his legal actions were directed at reporters who he felt were not reporting all of the news and were selectively editing it as well. People might disagree, but his right to exclude a specific SUN reporter was sustained by the courts. Perhaps more important, does Mr. Zurawik want to censor Gov. Ehrlich because he (Zurawik) finds Gov. Ehrlich’s opinions so odious? How anti-democratic, or equally striking, how Democratic!
The FCC’s “Equal Time” rule, still in effect, requires that all “legally qualified candidates,” that is, declared candidates, be afforded equal opportunities to use a broadcasting station, but that is not applicable to non-declared candidates, nor should it be. In the case of a charismatic Republican leader in a Democratically-controlled state, there is no legal or practical problem with the media utilizing a market-determined political force for insightful commentary to balance the print media’s imbalanced coverage.
Richard E. Vatz is professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University