Michele Bachmann accused CBS of bias after she alleges she learned she would be asked fewer questions than other candidates at this past Saturday’s Republican debate. According to Bachmann’s campaign manager Keith Nahigian, “The liberal mainstream media elites are manipulating the Republican debates by purposely suppressing our conservative message and limiting Michele’s questions.”
The accusations raise questions about candidates’ right to equal time: Did CBS’ editorial decision reveal an ingrained bias in news organizations as Nahigian argued? Does fairness dictate that networks must pay equal attention to all candidates? Or is this charge a strictly strategic move from Bachmann’s camp? We talked to several political experts for their take on the debate.
The ruckus began when CBS News producer John Dickerson mistakenly included one of Bachmann’s staffers on an e-mail in which he instructed producers to keep contact with Bachmann’s team “loose… since she’s not going to get many questions and she’s nearly off the charts.” After the debate, Nahigian fired back on Facebook that Dickerson’s dismissal was “evidence confirming what every conservative already knows” and that media figures are conspiring to stifle conservative discussion.
For their part, CBS News issued a statement to CNN that Dickerson’s e-mail was “a candid exchange about the reality of the circumstances — Bachmann remains at 4% in the polls.” A number of current polls put Bachmann firmly in the back of the GOP pack, garnering anywhere from 2-to-10 percent of votes. But how, if at all, does Bachmann’s standing in the race impact her rights to equal air time?
From a legal standpoint, Bachmann has no rights per se. Since the 1970s, debates have been considered on-the-spot news events, which are exempt from the equal opportunity provision of 1959’s Communications Act. On a more practical level, it’s up to the networks to determine how to structure their debates, and they tend to fall on tradition. “There is a set formula for equal time when it comes to advertising. There is even an understanding when it’s one-on-one debates, but when you have eight people on the stage [like in Saturday’s debate], you cannot guarantee equal time to all,” said Bill Whalen, a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “It’s not soccer, not everyone gets to play.”
“The issue isn’t really about fairness,” said Columbia Journalism Review writer Greg Marx. “It’s about [media outlets] playing the right role and giving Republican party members and other politically aware individuals the info they need about the candidates.” Marx believes that “Republican elites and primary voters have [already] spent a lot of time getting a sense of Bachmann and who she is.” Her currently low numbers, he argued, presented CBS with “a good, democratic reason” to give other candidates more face time. Agreed Dan Schnur, an expert in political strategy and Director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politic, “By any objective measurement, a candidate at 4 percent in the polls isn’t entitled to an equal amount of time as one at 25 or 30 percent.”
Schnur said that if CBS is guilt of any bias, it’s “bias in favor of candidates with greater levels of public support.” Noted Whalen, a former campaign speech writer and political reporter for Insight Magazine, “These debates started with Mitt Romney [placed] in the middle [of the stage]. The last debates have had [poll leader] Herman Cain in the middle, and this is not an accident. Bachmann is going further and further out into the fringe.” Bachmann’s moment, he said, came and passed in August.
Schnur saw the move as a time-honored strategy to motivate Bachmann’s base. “This is the sort of thing you do to rally your own troops… when you’re going through a tough time period.” Similarly, Whalen says that Bachmann “needs to get noticed. One way to do that is pick a fight with the media.” He added, “There’s an enormous political component to this,” and Bachmann’s camp is simply “turning to a topic that works for Republicans, which is blaming the media.” With its embattled history with Republican leaders including George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, CBS is “the cherry on top of the sundae.”
Still, said Whalen, “I don’t think it’s the cure for what ails her.”