Last night, incumbent Carl Levin–a Democrat–debated Republican Jack Hoogendyk in downtown Grand Rapids. The debate, which was not open to the public, was televised by local PBS affiliate WGVU. The debate was one of two that will be held during the campaign and is viewable online.
However, the debate excluded third party candidates Scott Boman of the Libertarian Party, Doug Dern of the Natural Law Party, Harley Mikkelson of the Green Party, and Mike Nikitin of the US Taxpayers Party. In response to the exclusion, Libertarian Scott Boman contacted WGVU to ask why the station excluded him. In an email exchange posted on Boman’s website, WGVU station manager Mike Walenta says:
“This email constitutes a formal response to your communication regarding the upcoming WGVU-sponsored debate between the Republican and Democratic candidates for the US Senate from Michigan. WGVU has hosted such programs for many years and has utilized these criteria when extending invitations to candidates. Candidates must meet all three criteria:
(1) the person seeking to participate must have qualified for the ballot;
(2) the candidate must be running a visible and comprehensive campaign as determined by WGVU; and
(3) the candidate must show a certain fixed level of support — at least 5% — in professionally conducted public opinion polls.
These criteria were adapted by WGVU from those developed by our broadcast partner, National Public Radio and have been used by WGVU for U.S. Senate debates in 1996, 2000, 2002, 2006, and again this year. While you meet criterion one, it is WGVU’s judgment that you do not meet criterion two or three. For that reason, we did not extend an invitation to you. We appreciate your interest in public television and thank you for your letter.”
However, the criteria is clearly problematic. While the first criterion is acceptable, the other two are difficult given the heavy bias in the media against third party candidates. In a Michigan Messenger article, reporter Todd Heywood writes that he could only find one poll–not a statewide one–in which Boman was even included as an option, making it basically impossible for a third party candidate to qualify. The other criterion–that a candidate “must be running a visible and comprehensive campaign as determined by WGVU”–offers no transparency and essentially gives the station the ultimate decision on who to include.
Taken together, the criteria means that third party voices will consistently be excluded from debates hosted by WGVU.