Dennis the Menace?

The Vegas debate, missing in…Vegas

It was a triumph of the First Amendment. Or of Corporate Media. Or, perhaps, of both. Regardless, yesterday’s pre-debate legal-battle-in-a-bottle between Dennis Kucinich and NBC Universal was worthy of a John Grisham novel: lower courts finding for the little guy, higher courts reversing that in favor of the big guy, emergency hearings with the Nevada State Supreme Court, an eleventh-hour flight from Cleveland to Vegas, three hours of nail-biting waiting—with a final decision not coming in until less than an hour before the nationally-televised MSNBC debate was scheduled to begin. Yep, a respectable Courtroom Drama if ever there was one: during all the craziness, you half expected to see a dress-uniformed Tom Cruise leap in front of the cameras, announcing to all, “I want the TRUTH!” (Alas, no such luck.) And, as if the above weren’t enough, drama-wise, in the middle of it all was a feisty, tea bag-totin’ vegan wanting and waiting to Have His Say.

What excitement! What a story!

But the Grisham-tastic melodrama, as reported by most major media outlets, either missed or ignored one of the key aspects of the story: that, as a result of all the legal scuffling, MSNBC’s (ridiculously nicknamed) “black-and-brown” debate didn’t air on local stations in Nevada.

It came down, as things often do, to a legal loophole. Yesterday’s final, late-day court decision upheld the FCC’s equal-time rule, which mandates (reasonably) equal air time for major political candidates. But that rule doesn’t apply as readily to cable TV networks…so the MSNBC debate—which, in excluding Kucinich, effectively broke the equal-time rule—could air on NBC’s cable channel, but not on its local affiliates.

So the very people who were its supposed audience—the people who will actually be voting in Saturday’s primary in Nevada—got to see the debate only if they had cable. (Cox Cable, the sole provider in the Vegas area, charges $45 per month for its expanded-basic cable package, which includes MSNBC. Not cheap.) In other words: the largely middle-class workers whose “issues” the debate was supposed to address—the very people who might not want or be able to spend over $500 a year on cable—got screwed.

Which seems, you know, worth at least a mention in the coverage of yesterday’s legal squabble. But several reports—from the AP, in particular—either missed or ignored that element of the story. And one of the few outlets that didn’t, The New York Times (its mention buried in its A19 piece), framed the debate’s lack of local airing as a loss for …the candidates:

An unintended consequence of the ruling was to restrict the debate from being broadcast on the local NBC affiliate here, KVBC-TV. Anchors on the local station said the ruling limited the broadcast to cable. The campaigns of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina were hoping for local exposure in advance of Saturday’s Nevada caucuses.

Fair enough. But what about the voters?

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.