I didn’t mention it in the post on the last Democratic presidential candidates debate (I should have), but the NBC moderators went out of their way to give as little attention and camera time to former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley as possible. The frustrated third wheel found himself begging for time like Jim Webb in the first debate, and several commentators have noted that Andrea Mitchell and Lester Holt were openly disrespectful to him, making it clear to all that he was irrelevant.
Disrespect is usually unethical, and the conduct of the moderators was indeed disrespectful, essentially marginalizing O’Malley and muzzling him as well. The context, however, is that they may have a point. O’Malley has been running from the start. He has said nothing to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, other than remind everyone that he’s the only ex-governor in the race. He is polling in Lincoln Chafee territory, even though his opposition is a superannuated socialist whose positions make no sense, and a previously rejected serial liar who is facing a possible indictment. Is he the equivalent of the guest who won’t leave the party?
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz question today:
Is the news media treating Martin O’Malley unfairly?
I’m not going to answer this, except to note a couple of things. It is not the news media’s job or proper role to decide who is or is not a legitimate candidate. You may recall that the Huffington Post announced that it would not cover Donald Trump’s candidacy because it, in its unquestionable wisdom, had concluded that he he was a buffoon and his campaign was a sham. Obviously, a lot of members of the American public felt differently, and Huffpo had to reverse itself. Two entities get to decide who legitimate candidates are: the parties, and the public. The media gets to cover the race and comment; it does not have the authority, ethical or otherwise, to embargo candidates. There hasn’t even been a vote yet. The media claims it’s following the race objectively, but aren’t ratings driving who it covers and who it doesn’t? The Huffington Post may have gone too far, but hasn’t the news media’s obsession with Donald Trump contributed to making him a serious threat to win the GOP nomination? Is this not an abuse of power and influence?
On the other side of the issue, when does it become offensive for an alleged candidate to waste our time and detract from the real race? O’Malley has some powerful arguments to make against Clinton and Sanders, but has thus far refused to make them. If his plan is to hang around hoping that Hilary ends up on trial and that his party will refuse to nominate a crackpot who honeymooned in the Soviet Union, is that enough to warrant full and equal coverage? At some point, doesn’t a candidate have an obligation to get off the stage? If he doesn’t, is it wrong for journalists to point to the exits?
Martin O’Malley may indeed be irrelevant, but these questions are not. What is the proper role of journalists in a national election? When does a dark horse candidacy get in the way of choosing a leader?