Exclusion from Presidential Debates: Kucinich gets injunction (for a short while)

The Time’s The Caucus blog reports that Kucinich got an injunction against MSNBC excluding him from their debate airing now (which was a change from their initial position of including him), which was subsequently (of course) protested by MSNBC. I don’t know where things stand now except that the debate is happening now without Kucinich.

I don’t personally have an opinion about who should be included in debates at this point at this point (that is, at this point I don’t have a position about debates that occur at this point and forward), though I think it’s an important public policy question that doesn’t necessary deserve to be decided by corporations (owing to their use of public airwaves).

In the injunction request, Kucinich’s lawyers claim:

[This] undermines the purpose of the Federal Communications Act . . . and is a blatant violation of the Act because of the media’s obligation to operate in the public interest. . . . [It] is effectively an endorsement of the candidates selected by NBC. In addition, if NBC is given the liberty to designate every appearance of with two candidates as “news”, then no third candidate will have the ability to enforce the equal time requirement, which is inconsistent with the intent of Congress in enacting [whatever].

Kucinich also alleges breach of contract, but that’s less interesting.

The court’s initial ruling in favor of Kucinich agreed with Kucinich on both points, but did not provide any elaboration on why.

The injunction request included as an appendix in MBNBC’s appeal, available for download from the Times. The PDF includes the injunction request document twice: the second time, it is not cut off. The PDF also has some other interesting things: a photocopy of a check, the email addresses of campaign managers in some exhibits, and…

Among the materials included with the injunction request (I think- it’s hard to tell from my cursory reading what materials go with which documents) are emails from NBC executives to the candidates about their invitation to the debate, and, more interesting to me, to a telephone conference call about debate format. I wish someone would share or leak a recording of that conference call. That’s what I really want to see, and if you don’t know why….

Here’s a recap of where this post is coming from: I blogged previously on how I think there is an important story of corruption in how presidential candidates are included in televised debates, in that the big media corps do exercise control merely by limiting the playing field of candidates: the fewer candidates there are, the fewer they have to be in the pockets of. Not that I think every registered candidate in any state and his mother needs to be in every debate, but what I do believe strongly is that for those candidates that are included at all, they should get equal time to answer questions. Out of the last 8 debates in 2007 before the primaries (for both parties), MSNBC’s two Democratic debate most egregiously allocated time unevenly to the candidates, with the more popular candidates according to the polls getting much, much more time than the rest. The De Moines Register, on the other hand, ought to be applauded loudly for holding the only two debates in which time was allocated completely evenly.

Procedural Uncertainty & Normalization

I always find it interesting how although our government is run by fairly strict procedural rules that have been written out in various places, starting with the constitution and ending somewhere past the horizon, sometimes it’s just impossible to locate exactly at what point in the procedural game “reality” is. For instance, the constitution outlines how a bill can become a law. But, at what point is a bill considered vetoed? If the president is signing the veto signature but misspells “veto” (or whatever he writes in this case, I have no idea), or is taken to the hospital before he writes the “o”, is the bill vetoed, or is it still awaiting a signature?

The reason this is interesting to me is that we like to capture reality in data. The Library of Congress and GovTrack both systematize (or in computer jargon “normalize”) the bill-becomes-a-law process. At every point in the game, a bill, in our data formats, is either in-progress, enacted, dead, etc. It must be in one of these states. After all, the constitution outlines exactly what states a bill can be in, so any bill *must* be in one of these states.

But if we’re not sure what state a bill is in, what state do we put it in in our data? There’s also the more important question- What do the lawmakers do if they disagree about what state a bill is in? (Actually, I would prefer to phrase it as “what state they are in”, but that’s another story.) Wikipedia describes (what the editors of the page claim is) a current debacle over H.R. 1585: National Defense Authorization Act FY 2008:

In December of 2007, President George W. Bush pushed the pocket veto into murky waters by claiming that he had pocket vetoed H.R. 1585, the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008,” even though the House of Representatives had designated agents to receive presidential messages before adjourning. The bill had been previously passed by veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate [JT: and thus a traditional veto would have been futile].

So was the bill (pocket) vetoed or not? Is the bill still in-progress? Assuming it was not pocket vetoed, after 10 legislative days without a traditional veto it becomes law, and us citizens would hate to be on that 11th day without either resolution on the pocket veto matter or a traditional veto, because then we as a country will not know whether this bill has become law. (Another question: How might the Supreme Court assert jurisdiction over this question.)

But back to the data. At one point, some time after Dec. 28, someone in the House responsible for updating the bill status information shown on THOMAS entered a new status line:

Dec 28, 2007: Pocket Vetoed by President.

GovTrack picked up on the change and shows that status currently, much to the confusion of several people emailing me about it. Looking back at THOMAS, it seems like someone realized that that was apparently quite a constitutional (if not political) claim and retracted that update, because it not longer says that.

In many cases citizens complain when the government takes things back, hiding information previously made public. That’s definitely not what I am getting at here. THOMAS is forced to show *something*, and when it doubt… well, what can you do but roll back history until we figure out what the next legislative step actually *was*.