As the St. Louis Metro Chapter of the League of Women Voters once again did its heavy lifting to bring political awareness to the citizens of St. Louis, the local media once again snoozed. This past Saturday evening, June 2, the League hosted a forum for the Democratic candidates for Congress from Missouri’s Second Congressional District.
All five candidates (Bill Haas, Robert Hazel, John Messmer, Mark Osmack and Cort VanOstran) showed up and provided largely direct responses to questions from the audience, filtered through the League staff to ensure a balance in the topics discussed. The audience at the Ethical Society topped one hundred and politely listened as the candidates responded to the thoughtful questions.
In many ways, the forum was a model for democracy. Candidates were present and an engaged audience heard responses to a range of questions. But how did the other 750,000 citizens of the district benefit from the program? Social media might have doubled the outreach of the event and then there is word of mouth. So, to be generous, perhaps five hundred would-be constituents of these candidates have some awareness of what happened in an event that represented democracy at its best.
But nowhere to be seen was the St. Louis media. They are the springboard to public awareness of relevant public issues and who among us is trying to solve our problems. But, apparently, they had more important stories to cover:
- The Louis Post-Dispatch had room for “Teacher charged for allegedly feeding puppy to snapping turtle,” but not for the forum affecting 750,000 in the media market.
- KSDK – Channel 5 had “’I just broke down’ – Woman asking for help finding dog stolen during carjacking” but not for the forum affecting 750,000 in the media market.
- KMOV – Channel 4 covered from Australia, “Hotel valet has lucky escape, but Porsche gets crunched,” but not for the forum affecting 750,000 in the media market.
- Fox2Now – Channel 2 covered “Dog dies during Delta Air Lines layover in Michigan,” but not for the forum affecting 750,000 in the media market.
St. Louis media has a history of being asleep at the switch as candidates for public office work to communicate their message to the public. It can be argued that their dereliction of duty has had very harmful results.
In 2004, Jeff Smith was running for Congress in Missouri’s Third Congressional District in a field of over a dozen candidates. His grass-roots campaign made him the primary challenger to State Rep. Russ Carnahan of the Carnahan Dynasty in Missouri. Smith had important information that Carnahan ranked near the bottom of Missouri legislators in showing up for votes in Jefferson City. He made the media aware of this information, but they just sat on it. In an act of frustration, Smith took a different path that involved a minor violation of a Federal Elections Commission Regulation. In a complicated story, he wound up going to federal prison for a year. It likely would have never happened with a responsible press in St. Louis – a press that never apologized for its oversight.
Current incumbent in Missouri’s Second District, Ann Wagner, has failed to appear at League of Women Voters forums in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Democrats, Libertarians and Green Party candidates have had lively discussions, but the incumbent would not appear to defend herself. Not a peep from the mainstream media of St. Louis.
The Post-Dispatch has repeatedly deplored the role of big money in politics. But they are collaborators with a system that makes it very difficult for a candidate who does not raise large sums of money to compete on a level playing field. Why? Because, (a) they rarely report anything about candidates who do not raise large sums of money, even if these candidates may have the most viable positions on issues, (b) when they take time to handicap races, it is generally based on money raised rather than anything having to do with issues, and (c) because the MSM does not cover these races, candidates need to raise more money to get their word out. Raising money always means that some voters become more important than others, and that undermines democracy.
We have some very good Democratic candidates in Missouri’s Second Congressional District. It is up to the mainstream media to let voters know about them, and to do so in a way that minimizes the need of the candidates to engage in more money-grubbing.
To our media: please don’t just comment the state of our democracy; be a greater part of the solutions.