Six years ago a man named Robert Ash Wallace, who had once been assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury, ran for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. Wallace had impressive credentials and he waged as spirited a campaign as he could afford, one replete with that modern-day irrelevancy, position papers. But Wallace couldn’t afford very much; he couldn’t begin to pay for the decibel level of drumbeating he’d have needed to overcome his one huge disadvantage: nobody had ever heard of him. Everybody knew his Democratic primary opponent, Alan Dixon.
The media decided that Wallace was not in the picture. They ignored him. Fact is, they ignored the entire race. They decided that Anthony Martin-Trigona and Dakin Williams were screwballs, Alex Seith was a has-been, Wallace was a nonentity, and Dixon was as good as elected. “It was a self-fulfilling prophecy,” a former Wallace staffer remembered the other day. Ignored, Wallace could not put his name across, let alone his message, and finished back in the pack.
This system of covering elections—Frank Devine, editor of the Sun-Times, calls it “triage”—usually winds up justifying itself. The candidates that the media ignore are also ignored by the voters. The kooks and extremists—that is, those names on the ballot about whom generations of editors have sworn, “We’re not giving those goofballs any ink”—draw so few votes that the sagacity of the editors who must parcel out a finite news hole can only be hailed.
There are occasional surprises. A Gary Hart comes from nowhere to win a primary. Polls show an Alex Seith threatened to upset a Charles Percy. But no harm done. These are signals for the media to enter the fray, to begin paying the attention reserved for those who make it clear they have attention coming. The price of the media’s nonchalance is barely noticeable, except by the candidates who cannot cut through their own obscurity.
This stopped being true on March 18. As related in a splendid article in the Sun-Times last Sunday, a political organizer named Lee Thomas had a glimmering that the 1986 Democratic primary might be different. His tea leaves—such as a mock election in a downstate high school—told him that his candidate (he was the campaign coordinator for Senator George Sangmeister, who was Adlai Stevenson’s running mate for lieutenant governor) was in trouble. But nobody Thomas talked to—not party officials and no reporters—took him seriously. A Stevenson aide tells me that at campaign headquarters Thomas’s evidence was assessed as “an index of a political problem” that couldn’t imaginable by a major one, not when Sangmeister had been slated by the Democratic party and his opponent belonged to the crackpot fringe.
The opponent, Mark Fairchild, a disciple of Lyndon LaRouche, beat Sangmeister fairly handily, with 52 percent of the vote.
“In retrospect it was clear as crystal,” says the Stevenson aide. The reasons why Fairchild (and Janice Hart) won are so obvious today they constitute a sort of purloined letter. Responsibility for the debacle can be widely apportioned, but to explain it in a few words, the public remained completely ignorant about Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart, an only slightly less ignorant about George Sangmeister and the party’s choice for secretary of state, Aurelia Pucinski, leading to a vote that turned to a large extent on the relative pleasingness of unfamiliar surnames.
If he wants to cast blame, Stevenson needs look no further than into his own mirror. And Democrats from Mayor Washington on down who did not promote the entire slate on their sample ballots deserve censure.
But if Democratic voters are outraged at their own ignorance—and they ought to be—one institution above all must be held accountable for it. The press has its various duties but one leads all the others: to inform. It is supposed to do it routinely and it is supposed to do it well.
I asked Frank Devine how much responsibility he believes the press must bear. “A bit of it, not a lot,” he said. I was thinking that Devine was understating the matter considerably when he continued, “We really did very dumbly. We didn’t think about it. Really, the duty of a newspaper is to inform to make sensible choices, and we failed.” He described the exercise in dissection and sorting out that began on page one of last Sunday’s paper and will continue this Sunday as “doing our mea culpas.”
Devine said, “We failed because of our triage formulation.” He said he meant by his that LaRouche candidates had done so poorly in the past that they didn’t merit coverage this time. Devine wasn’t on firm ground here: LaRouchians had won Democratic primaries before, though none of this scale; and circumstances this time, had he stopped to think about them (no one did), were different—Fairchild and Hart were the only alternatives to candidates who were sitting ducks.
“Some of our guys, including oddly enough, ‘Page 10,’ were identifying some of them as LaRouche,” Devine said about the opposition to the official Democratic slate. “We were listening with interest but basically shrugging and saying, ‘So what?'”
Everybody slept. Chip Berlet, an investigator/writer for Midwest Research, has tracked Lyndon LaRouche as closely as anyone in the country. He has watched the “linear rise” in the percentage of ballots LaRouchians have received in the various races they’ve entered, and he told me this week, “It doesn’t take a genius to look at that trend and say these people are going to shock the Democrats one day.” Berlet knew about Fairchild and Hart and the other LaRouchies in the primary.
“I never made it a big deal,” he said. “I’m ashamed to say it wasn’t a priority. I’m angry about it. I’m depressed about it. I’m ashamed about it.”
At the Tribune, editor Jim Squires described away of doing business that sounds exactly like triage, although Squires didn’t put that name to it. “If you look at the traditional way of covering elections—there’s a traditional set of values, criteria. Historically, you only cover races that are races. If there’s a well-known candidate and an unknown campaigner, especially if they’re not campaigning, you ignore them.
“There are hundreds of candidates the press has to deal with and that are very costly to deal with. More and more, the press’s role is to deal with the races no one else deals with. The lieutenant governor, secretary of state, those are big statewide races generally won or lost on TV. We spend a lot of time doing the judges’ races.”
Squires said the Tribune, over the weeks, invited all the candidates in, including the LaRouchies. “We couldn’t find some of them,” he said. “These particular ones we did not find. Hart, I think, had an unlisted telephone number. We knew they were LaRouchies, we said so when we mentioned them, but they were very infrequently mentioned, according to the traditional standards. This suggests the traditional standards may not apply or be in the best interests of the reader.”
By the Tribune‘s “traditional standards”—which prevail throughout the business—Fairchild and Hart merited no attention. They were unknowns; furthermore they were unknowns who did not even campaign. Their opponents were well known—or so the media, without reflecting on it, believed. The thing is, in this case it was Fairchild and Hart’s obscurity, combined with everyone else’s failure to campaign, that made them electable. This electability should have been big news, which would have made them immediately unelectable.
“This was such an aberration,” Squires said. “So many unusual circumstances had to come together to make it happen. I’m sure not wearing any hair shirt—I don’t think it’s going to happen again.”
The Sun-Times, in its analysis of the LaRouche coup, has been far more willing to acknowledge the media’s contribution than the Tribune, where only TV columnist Steve Daley has paid it any particular attention. It’s a difference that reflects the papers’ editors: Devine doing his mea culpas while the subject of blame irritates Squires. “Well, that’s what we ought to do, assess blame,” Squires said sarcastically when I brought it up. “These things don’t just happen—these hokey things don’t just sometimes happen in politics.”
Of course they do. It’s just that this one wouldn’t have if the press hadn’t allowed the public to remain so damned dumb. Clarence Page put it this way in the Tribune: “The media, caught between questions of the public’s right to know and a reluctance to give publicity to extremist groups, said little about the LaRouche candidates.” In other words, forced to make a choice, the media kissed off the public’s right to know. It was an unsurprising choice; and when you stop to think about it, it was inexcusable.
But Page’s formulation was imprecise. The media’s reluctance to publicize is not limited to extremist groups. Triage finds the media subordinating our right to know to the efficiencies that lie in ignoring any candidate of any stripe who doesn’t impress the media as a contender. Our right to know about Robert Ash Wallace was taken no more seriously by the press than our right to know about Mark Fairchild.
The press should at least do this: it should comb through the lists of candidates and imagine every one in turn winning, then publicize the candidate whenever that prospect seems appalling. The Tribune can have an opinion on whether Adlai Stevenson would make a better governor than Jim Thompson, but most voters can make up their own minds without the newspapers weighing in. We can’t make up our minds about George Sangmeister and Mark Fairchild when we don’t know either man, and the press’s duty to intercede becomes all the greater when it knows—and knows we don’t know—that one of those candidates but not the other represents a group that maintains that the queen of England controls the world’s supply of heroin.
Chip Berlet had something else to say. He’s been a little ground down. The LaRouchians have sued him, pestered him, vilified him—he says—tried to make his life miserable. He’s talked to a member of the Democratic National Committee about putting anti-LaRouche material into the hands of every precinct captain, but nothing was accomplished. “Every time we tried to go after these people, there was no support.”
He said, “It’s hard for us to sell articles on Lyndon LaRouche”; that’s because LaRouche is so quick to sue any magazine in which a critical mention would appear. “The legal system grinds you down mighty fine, too,” he said.
That is the larger context for Illinois’ bizarre March elections. There’s an element of intimidation drawing a shadow, leaving us to wonder if the media’s disdain was not partly a reluctance to borrow trouble.