The unbearable invisibility of political underdogs

invisible manIn theory, Americans love the underdog. In practice—especially in 21st century media coverage of political campaigns—underdog candidates might as well be wearing Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility.

Here’s a particularly egregious example: In the August 2010 primary election in Missouri, Democratic candidate Arthur Lieber won the right to appear on the November ballot as the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, versus then-incumbent Republican Todd Akin. The next morning, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Akin was running unopposed in November.

That’s about as bad as it gets, but it’s not the only way that mainstream media—and political parties, too—demonstrate bias against candidates who are running against the odds.

In 2012, in the same Congressional district, Democrat Glenn Koenen defied conventional political wisdom, thinking that the then-open, newly redrawn district was winnable—with a little luck, a strong Democratic message, and some media attention. He was wrong, but not for lack of trying.

Without the requisite five-figure media budget, he did all the other right things: speaking engagements, candidate forums, press releases, interviews, etc. But as soon as Republican political insider Ann Wagner joined the race, the state Democratic party gave up, calling the race un-winnable. Newspapers and electronic media barely acknowledged Koenen’s existence, while slavishly covering Wagner’s every move. The Post-Dispatch invited Wagner in for a sit-down with the editorial board. Koenen got a 15-minute phone interview with a lower-level reporter. Television and radio outlets assigned reporters to cover the race, but none of them covered Koenen. The final insult came during the week before the November election, when, on its editorial page, the Post-Dispatch ticked off a list of Wagner’s negative points, as opposed to Koenen’s positives—and then endorsed Wagner.

Of course, this is not just a Missouri problem—it just happens that these are the stories I know best. [I live in Missouri’s 2nd District, and, by the way, Arthur Lieber just happens to be my spouse.] Both of these candidates joined the fray for good-citizen reasons: to make sure that there was a Democrat in the race—when no one else came forward, and when the state Democratic party made no effort to find or support anyone—and to try to make the point that political campaigns need to focus more on issues and less on money. Both were serious—as in serious about issues—candidates that deserved a hearing. Undaunted by previous media inattention, Lieber is doing it again in 2014.

Why does the mainstream media ignore the underdogs? Koenen says, “It’s all about conventional wisdom: The powers that be decide early on who is going to win, and they don’t want their narrative disturbed.”

Money—or, rather, the lack of money—is also a major contributing factor. In a recent interview, Koenen asserted that mainstream, corporate media are closely aligned with America’s economic elite. Corporate media regard their own bottom-line as paramount, he said, and that translates into a similar view of political campaigns: more money equals more success. The more corporate the campaign, the more mainstream media understand it and pay attention to it.

“The media are complicit in the corporatist approach to elections,” says Mikel Weisser, a progressive Democrat running this year for U.S. Congress in Arizona’s 4th District. “For them, it’s only about advancing the corporate agenda. They’re only interested in you if you have money. If you don’t, they ignore you or discount what you say.”

Weisser calls the media response to his campaign “dogged indifference,” explaining that the reporter from the Arizona Republic assigned to his campaign doesn’t respond to his emails or phone calls, and “acts as though there is no Democrat in the race.” Weisser ironically notes that the most media attention he’s received was from the Washington Post, which called out his campaign website as one of the most poorly designed in the country.

The current generation of news reporters also contributes to the problem, adds Koenen.

“Today’s young reporters come from middle- and upper-income families who can afford to send their kids to college,” he says. “They haven’t experienced and don’t buy into the struggles of people who don’t have as much money. They’re more concerned about people above them on the economic ladder. They’re aspirational. Concern for the underdog is no longer in their bones the way it used to be for reporters who had to work their own way up. Their reporting reflects that viewpoint.”

Applied to political reporting, that disconnect with economic underdogs makes reporters and their bosses see low-budget campaigns as losers.

And then there’s the matter of energy. “Unfortunately, some reporters take the path of least resistance,” says Lieber. “It’s just easier to report on the more visible, high-dollar campaigns of people with a lot of built-in name recognition.The real losers are the voters, because they don’t get the opportunity to find out that they have other choices.”

Unfortunately, it’s not going to get easier very soon, especially in light of recent Supreme Court rulings that have opened the floodgates of corporate political donations, and have reinforced the notion that the candidate with the most money deserves to win.

So, you’ve got to applaud candidates like Koenen, Lieber and Weisser for hanging in there against the odds. “We have to stay in, to make sure that our ideas get a hearing,” says Koenen. “For the system to work, ideas have to be valued as much as money. I was naive about the media when I ran. We have to keep pushing the media to do the right thing. Someone has to fight the fight.”