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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Presidential Debate Campaign Contributions

The same commentators who criticize Presidential candidates for not addressing fundamental issues are now on Jerry Brown’s back for doing just that.

On the recent television debate, hosted by NBC’s Tom Brokaw, Brown, former two-term governor of California, four times raised the issue of the corruption of money in politics. Four times before Brokaw picked it up and asked another candidate a question about campaign contributions by special interests.

Brown gave his 800 number requesting funds because he has pledged to take no more than $100 from any person or organization. Without going on the mass media, it is pretty hard to raise small money in any other way.

That effrontery clearly irritated Brokaw who said that there was pre-debate understanding that no one would ask for funds. Brown denied there was such an agreement, pointing out that General Electric, which owns NBC, gave $350,000 last year to Congressional campaigns.

The other Presidential candidates — Clinton, Harkin and Kerry — seemed uncomfortable as Brown challenged them not to take Political Action Committee (PAC) money or money in large denominations. None conceded his point.

The next few days following the debate, a torrent of denunciations poured in upon Brown by the professional press pundits. A New York Times columnist said he should quit the race

immediately. A sassy Sacramento Bee columnist said Brown has turned from a flake to a jerk. Others wrote him off contemptuously.

Just what were Brown’s sins? That he for years raised and took campaign money from interest groups? He admits that and says it is long past due for him and other politicians to change their ways.

Were the pundits angry because he repeatedly raised issues of pressure groups, money and politics in a forum where grand public matters are to be discussed with motivational rhetoric? This was supposed to be a debate, after all, and not a batch of soliloquies.

Many columnists didn’t like his style. He was uppity, even outrageous, to them. He took away a little of the schoolmaster control by Brokaw — their colleague — of the hour-long program. He didn’t play by the rules where the press, instead of observing and reporting, have taken direct control of the campaign debate format and, some would say, of the campaigns themselves. The media is, one should not have to add, largely big business today and is owned not just by media conglomerates but by industrial and financial corporations.

Reporters and commentators should be tough and insightful. But in recent years, a tone of slothful but aggressive pronouncement has begun to take hold among some of the haughtier television and print commentators. They pronounce in advance who is going to be a “viable candidate” and who is not.

Larry Agran, a long-time mayor of Irvine, California who has a record of bold thinking and doing, including linking cities internationally, is running for President. The pundits have

pronounced him a non-person. He is kept out of the debate because he is not considered “viable.” How do candidates become “viable” if at this early stage of the campaign the media boycotts them?

A more irritating practice that has become common, especially among the television opinion-heads, is “prediction.” The chairmen of these mostly Sunday morning network shows call on the members of the panel to predict who’s going to win what race long in advance of the people voting.

Pompous “prediction” and “pronouncement” lead to the media not being the message, as McCluhan once said, but the media in campaigns being the pundits and pronouncers.

Isn’t it time for citizens to shape campaigns by putting time and thought in a bottoms-up democracy?