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TV as Gatekeeper

Media heads decide which candidates get airtime

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SO few Americans know who Larry Agran is that most surveys of presidential-candidate name recognition neglect even to ask about him.

Yet the name of this former mayor of Irvine, Calif., will appear on Democratic primary ballots in 37 states.

What condemned Mr. Agran and fellow Democratic candidates such as former United States Sen. Eugene McCarthy to political oblivion long before the first vote was cast? The single most critical gate that neither candidate could pry open this campaign was inclusion in the four debates run by the television networks.

The gate-keepers in each case were network news executives who, according to Democratic Party officials, hold sole discretion over the debate panels.

The field of candidates is far more open and uncontrolled than half a century ago, when the legendary "smoke-filled rooms" of party politicos set the candidate field. But the nearest modern cousins to those power brokers now work in the news media.

"Now it is almost impossible to be taken seriously as a national candidate if you're not seen on those debates," says Agran. Credibility with financial contributors and attention in the news media are all shut off without debate appearances, which define the choice of candidates for most voters, he says. When he pressed news executives on how they picked which candidates made the cut and which did not, the essential answer was a vague one: news judgment.

Mr. McCarthy puts the power of the media in starker terms: "If you're not covered, you're not a candidate." "It's really finally arbitrary," he says of media judgments. "What is the writ? You know, what is the source of their power to do this?"

Whatever the writ, media judgments are harnessed by convention and follow cautiously in the footsteps of consensus. Political scientists, studying how reporters, editors, and producers determine who they cover and how much, have arrived at four basic measures of whether to take a candidate seriously.

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