Nevada high court gives network right to exclude Kucinich from debate

By Brian Stelter, The Caucus/New York Times

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that MSNBC is not required to include candidate Dennis Kucinich in its scheduled Democratic presidential debate.

The seven-member court overturned Monday’s ruling by a Nevada district court judge.

The decision, which came one hour before the debate was scheduled to begin in Las Vegas, meant that Mr. Kucinich would not share the stage with the party’s three leading contenders, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. The debate is expected to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern on MSNBC.

MSNBC had no immediate comment on the ruling. It will likely be described as a First Amendment victory by the news organization, as lawyers for NBC had argued that it had a right, as a privately owned network, to determine whom to invite to the debate. The network changed the criteria for participation in the debate after other candidates dropped out of the Democratic race for president last week.

On Monday senior district court judge Charles Thompson had ruled that Mr. Kucinich should be allowed to participate in the debate, citing a breach of contract by NBC Universal. Two days after a consultant for NBC invited Mr. Kucinich to the Las Vegas debate, NBC changed the criteria to only include candidates who had placed first, second or third in either the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primaries. The revised criteria excluded Mr. Kucinich, who has averaged 3 to 4 percent support in recent Nevada polls, prompting him to file a complaint on Monday.

The district court judge sided with Mr. Kucinich and said he would issue an injunction halting the debate if the candidate was excluded. NBC Universal responded by requesting an emergency hearing to review the decision. The state Supreme Court sided with NBC, determining that the lower court had exceeded its jurisdiction in making the ruling. Additionally, the court ruled that Mr. Kucinich did not have an enforceable contract with the network.

While awaiting the court’s ruling on Tuesday, the NBC News correspondent Kevin Corke explained the network’s position in a conversation with Tucker Carlson on MSNBC.

“We were expecting to have the three major candidates. Why? Well quite frankly, because those are the probable candidates. That pool is the most viable pool. And truthfully, most people want to hear what Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and Barack Obama have to say,” Mr. Corke said. “After all, those are probably the three they’re going to be picking from.”

Mr. Corke said he doubted that Mr. Kucinich would attend the debate. “I’m not so sure it serves the voters that well,” he said, “but certainty there’s a feeling here that every voice needs to be heard.’

Mr. Carlson responded: “Well as long as judges are deciding who’s on television, frankly I want a better time slot, and I plan to petition the court.”

At the state Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday, an attorney for NBC invoked the news organization’s First Amendment rights.

“Simply because you allege breach of contract doesn’t lessen the burden of the First Amendment,” Donald Campbell said, according to the Las Vegas Sun. An attorney for Mr. Kucinich said the candidate’s absence on the debate stage “would be detrimental to voters.”

Mr. Kucinich had previously framed his dis-invitation as an attempt by NBC to muzzle dissenting voices. In a statement last week he labeled corporate media control of information sinister and un-American.

Several recent quarrels between presidential candidates and television networks have prompted conversations about the rights of those media organizations to formulate criteria for participation at debates.

ABC News did not invite Mr. Kucinich, Democratic candidate Mike Gravel or Republican candidate Duncan Hunter to its New Hampshire debates on Jan. 5.

Fox News Channel did not invite Ron Paul to its Republican forum in New Hampshire on Jan. 6, prompting the state’s Republican party to pull its sponsorship of the event.

Brian Williams, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” is scheduled to moderate the debate. The format includes a twist: for the first time in this presidential debate cycle, “the candidates will have the ability to question each other during one particular segment,” Mr. Williams noted in a blog post.

article originally published at http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/nbc-wins-battle-over-debate/.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey