Be Prepared?

(This was written toward the very end of my 2002 campaign for the U.S. Senate as a candidate of the Green Party of New Jersey.)

I was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout as a young person. I was pretty serious about it, obtaining Eagle Scout rank and winning the God and Country award at the age of 14.

The motto of the Boy Scouts is, “Be Prepared.” But I wasn’t prepared for the aftermath of the October 30th, 2002, six-person, New Jersey U.S. Senate debate.

I had done well in the debate, held in and broadcast live throughout New Jersey from the studios of News 12 New Jersey in Edison and nationally via C-Span. As I left the studio my campaign manager, Doug Friedline, told me, “you kicked butt.” A police officer just down the hall made complimentary remarks. The other people from my campaign back in our designated preparation room all felt I had won the debate. Frank Lautenberg’s campaign manager told one of them later in the men’s room that I had done well. And literally every person I heard from over the next several days and weeks told me I had done well or had won.

I felt I had done well too, and as I returned home I looked forward to watching the news coverage of it. At 10:00 P.M. I turned on News 12 N.J’s regularly-scheduled news program. The lead story was about the debate.

Actually it wasn’t about the debate, the six-way one with all the ballot-qualified U.S. Senate candidates, the first time anything like this had ever happened in New Jersey. Instead, it was about a half-hour debate which followed the six-person one, a two-person debate between Democrat Frank Lautenberg and Republican Doug Forrester only. I had agreed to this in the pre-debate negotiations between News 12 New Jersey, the Democrats, the Republicans and my campaign. And I had agreed to it without giving it much of a second thought.

I should have. I should have been prepared.

Here is how I described the immediate aftermath of the debate in an Op Ed piece I wrote the next afternoon:

“Last night, two months after getting arrested protesting my exclusion from
the first Torricelli-Forrester debate on September 5th, I was back at the
“scene of the crime,” this time as a participant in News 12 New Jersey’s
second U.S. Senate debate.

”I felt good about how I did, and last night and this morning I received a lot
of positive input. This ranged from members of my campaign to my Democratic
next-door neighbor, from an apolitical post office employee to a stranger who
recognized me on the street and said, ‘You were good.’

”But if you didn’t see the debate and are relying on the news media to find
out what happened, well, good luck.

”It began inauspiciously last night when we were informed after the debate was
over that no one from the press was interested in talking to any of the
alternative party candidates, and we should go home.

”It continued when I watched News 12 New Jersey’s “news report” at 10 P.M. The
assigned reporter made the incredible statement that, “there was no
discussion about the Iraq war,” when this was one of the major issues that I
spoke about at least three times. Her “reportage” about the role of the four
alternative party candidates in the hour-long, six-person debate boiled down
to the vapid comment that “all the minor party candidates were for less
government and less taxes.”

”Then there was this morning’s New York Times. It saw fit to devote one short
paragraph to mentioning that the four of us were there — nothing about what
we said or stood for. Just that we were there. Kind of like describing what
the famous people wore to the latest famous person’s party. We were the
decorations for the main event, the monumental clash between Frank and Doug.

”Two other newspapers of record, the Newark Star-Ledger and the Bergen Record,
did a little better, carrying one paragraph per candidate following their
reporting on the hard news about Frank and Doug.

”It’s not easy being a serious third party candidate.

”Fortunately, the news media doesn’t vote. People vote.

”Unfortunately, the news media shapes the way people think, the way they feel,
which candidates they consider to be ‘serious.’

”If we want to understand why we will be lucky if more than one-third of the
potential voters come out next Tuesday, we don’t have to look much further
than our morning newspaper or our evening news.

”If I was conspiracy-minded, I’d think there was a suspicious link between
those who own the news media and those who dominate the Democratic and
Republican parties.

”Or maybe it’s just Halloween-related. Maybe we thought we were being treated
to a bit of a breakthrough when, after all, we were just being tricked again.

”So much for objective journalism.”

I think that one newspaper printed this Op Ed. If I’m right, that was the sole exception to the news media’s policy of whiting out the six-way debate and what happened during it. Not a single major media outlet in New Jersey or which covers New Jersey had an actual news story about this debate either right after it happened or since.

As the days went by after October 30th, moving toward the November 5th election day, I began to lower my hopes as far as my vote total. Just prior to the debate I and my campaign manager were still thinking upwards of 5% was possible based upon polls that showed approximately 20% of those polled were either undecided, planning to vote independent or “soft” in their support of Lautenberg or Forrester. But as I experienced the day-by-day, virtually total white-out of coverage about me in the media, I started thinking that maybe 2-3% was more realistic.

I knew well about the power of the media to shape people’s views and perceptions regarding candidates for office.