This Friday night, public radio station KCRW and The Santa Barbara Independent are hosting a debate featuring candidates for U.S. Congress in California’s 24th District, which includes all of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Unfortunately, the debate, to be held before a live audience at the New Vic Theater in Santa Barbara and simultaneously broadcast and streamed by KCRW, will include only five of the nine eligible candidates.
This breaks with the more democratic precedent of previous debates sponsored by UCSB, CalPoly San Luis Obispo, Cuesta Community College, and the American Association of University Women, which invited all candidates.
The Friday night lineup includes only Democrat and Republican candidates, and excludes both independents in the race, Steve Isakson of Atascadero and me. All the professional politicians in the race are included: Salud Carbajal (Dem), currently a Santa Barbara County supervisor, Helene Schneider (Dem), mayor of Santa Barbara, and Katcho Achadjian (Rep), California state assemblymember; as is Justin Fareed (Rep) of Santa Barbara, whose total campaign contributions to date exceed $1 million (as do Carbajal’s).
KCRW and The Independent claimed a need to limit the field to give all participants sufficient time to relate their views. This is dubious given that earlier debates included all nine candidates and proved highly successful. In fact, the large field forced each candidate to speak directly to issues; no time was left for meandering, repetition, or mudslinging.
The criteria on which KCRW and The Independent based their candidate selection is likewise doubtful. A vetting questionnaire was distributed to candidates beforehand that asked such questions as the amount of campaign contributions received, number of paid staff, and name of the campaign treasurer. Overall the intent seemed to be to identify the candidates with the best chances of winning the election. But the purpose of a candidate forum is not so much to predict winners as to present and discuss new ideas; from that vantage point, the most valuable candidates are arguably outsiders and newcomers with original ideas and fresh perspectives on vital issues.
Furthermore, the questionnaire clearly gave preference to status quo candidates whose campaign is focused on collecting large amounts of money, much of which is then applied to the objectionable practice of insulting voters’ intelligence with television ads. I refused to complete what I judged to be an unfair questionnaire that gave so much advantage to big-money, status quo candidates, and that sought to limit the field of participants in the first place.
The fact is that in the Internet age, the things large campaign war chests buy — television ads, mass mailings, and targeted robocalls — are obsolete. Anyone with a computer or smartphone can visit candidate websites and make an intelligent choice from that information. We don’t need new laws to reform campaigning; we just need candidates to stop running stupid ads and to instead compete on the level playing field of the Internet.
To favor big-money, status quo candidates is all the more remarkable given the mood of voters in this election, which is one of anger and frustration about too much money in politics and the Republican-Democrat stranglehold over our elections. In short, in restricting participants as they have, KCRW and The Independent are propping up the very status quo that everyone now recognizes has failed and desperately needs replacement.
With the two-party monopoly of the Friday debate comes a severe restriction of issues, viewpoints, and relevance. Because I’m the only anti-war candidate in the race, my exclusion means that the supremely important and urgent issue of U.S. wars and militarism won’t be addressed. To ignore the fact that the U.S. has been at war for 15 years, is conducting major military operations in seven countries, and is potentially poised to commence a new war in Syria is irresponsible in the utmost; it makes Friday night’s event a farce.
In fairness to KCRW and The Independent, I should mention that in response to my repeated complaints they proposed a second debate featuring the four excluded candidates. I felt that this was still unfair, inasmuch as the latter debate would not be before a live audience, and also because by not including such high-visibility candidates as Schneider, Carbajal, and Achadjian, it would have been perceived as a “minor candidates” affair. War is not a minor issue. Further, it left unexplained why they didn’t simply include all candidates in one debate.
In addition, I’d like to speak up on behalf of the other candidates excluded from the Friday night lineup: Steve Isakson, Matt Kokkonen, and Benjamin Lucas. At a time when many people are giving up and despairing of change, these men are stepping forward and trying to make a difference. They are making great personal sacrifices to do this — and their efforts are all the more commendable precisely because they face the kind of status quo opposition that the present case exemplifies. For Santa Monica–based KCRW especially to come up here, impose its arbitrary and outdated corporatist views, and insult sincere local community members like Messrs. Kokkonen, Isakson, and Lucas is inappropriate and unacceptable.
Here we see media and politicians operating as a closed elite, largely money-based, limiting and shaping public debate. It’s undemocratic, and even constitutes a form of thought control. Whatever their motives and intentions are, the actions of KCRW and The Independent serve to maintain an obsolete, failing, and extremely unpopular status quo.
Voters, and especially young voters, are tired of and angry about politics as usual. If news sources don’t wake up and realize that the times are changing, they’ll quickly find that people will choose other ways to get their news.
However, rather than dwell on the undemocratic behavior of KCRW and The Independent, we should all the more appreciate and praise local journalists who have recognized the value and fairness of giving all candidates the same coverage. I’d mention in this connection David Minsky of the Santa Maria Sun, Lisa Osborn of KCSB, Randol White of KCBX, Karina Coral of KSBY, Kenny Lindberg of Lee Central Coast Newspapers, the staff of Charter Communications and Cox Cable, Matt Fountain and the San Luis Obispo Tribune, and Kelsey Knorp of UCSB. These people are credits to the community. We’re lucky to have them.