KCCI television, along with media partners the Des Moines Register, will host the first Iowa governor’s debate in their studios on October 10th.
Republican incumbent Kim Reynolds and Democratic challenger Fred Hubbell have been invited, but the debate organizers have controversially excluded Libertarian candidate Jake Porter. This is despite Porter being on the ballot in November and Porter winning Iowa’s first ever Libertarian primary in June.
KCCI breaks with its own traditions of inclusivity
Founded over sixty years ago, KCCI is one of one of Iowa’s most respected providers of television journalism, and has historically been Des Moines’ highest rated channel for news.
Like most mainstream American media, KCCI also has a history of inclusiveness and impartiality in political discussion. As recently as December 2017, KCCI issued an editorial which said:
“One of the great benefits local broadcasters like KCCI provide is a platform for political debate without us taking sides, where many diverse ideas can co-exist, even ideas you may not agree with. We think this is a good thing, and we hope you do, too.”
Nine months later, at a moment when KCCI is quite literally providing a platform for debate, the station appears to have changed tact. Instead of merely providing a neutral platform for viewers, KCCI has decided to curate which candidates Iowans should hear from.
In a September 14th editorial about the decision to exclude Porter, the station said:
“The debate we think best helps the electorate make a decision this fall — is between Fred Hubbell and Kim Reynolds.”
“Readily available” objective criteria
The decision-making process used for debate inclusions has also been a point of controversy.
In the same editorial about their decision, KCCI said: “We’ve always relied on various, readily available, objective criteria to help with our determination.”
KCCI President and General Manager Brian Sather further elaborated on the criteria used in a letter sent to Jake Porter. In it he said:
“For this debate, we selected the candidates our news department judged to be the most newsworthy to include. A variety of objective factors were considered, including, among other things, past political involvement and public offices held, level of financial support from the community and fundraising efforts, party registration numbers, vote totals from the June primary, and, ultimately, a candidate’s viability.”
News Growl contacted Sather and KCCI News Director Dave Busiek for further explanation. Specifically, the letter appears to refer to other “objective” criteria used in their decision-making process not listed. We asked for the full list.
We also asked when the policy of using these criteria had been implemented by the station.
Sather responded. Referring to the letter KCCI sent to Porter he said, “I believe it addresses your questions.”
Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to locate answers to our questions within the letter itself.
The criteria listed are specifically named as being “among others” which are clearly not named. Also, we could find no mention of when the criteria (either named and unnamed) were adopted as station policy.
Fortunately, the quote from the editorial mentioned above does provide a time-scale: “We’ve always relied on various, readily available, objective criteria to help with our determination.” [italics ours]
Soon after our email exchange with Sather, however, we discovered that “always” may not be meant to extend as far back as 2014.
A KCCI televised debate in 2014 with different criteria
In 2014, KCCI and the Register hosted another debate, this time for candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District. Six candidates were invited to take part, including schoolteacher Joe Grandanette.
A self-described political outsider, Grandanette had only a modest support base and campaign infrastructure at the time of the debate. He had never held public office. During his entire campaign he never broke the $5,000 fundraising threshold that requires candidates to file reports with the Federal Election Commission. In a Loras College poll released a week before the debate, Grandanette’s support was sitting at 2%. This prediction was fairly accurate: in the primary itself Grandanette received 1.6% of the vote.
According to the criteria KCCI say they have always used, Jake Porter is a much stronger candidate in 2018 than Joe Grandanette was in 2014. Porter has never held elected office, but has a long history of political involvement (including serving as Executive Director of the Iowa Libertarian Party in 2017, and two years as an alternate on the Libertarian National Committee). According to Porter, he has raised over $10,000 since the Libertarian primary, including $6,000 in the last two weeks. And, most significantly, a recent Emerson College poll shows that while 37% of Iowans currently plan to vote for Hubbell, and 31% for Reynolds, a surprising 7% say they will vote for “someone else.”
With Porter being the main “someone else” on the ballot, and 23% of respondents remaining undecided, it is plausible to think Porter’s support level could end up determining who the ultimate winner is. On this count alone, Iowa voters certainly have a public interest in hearing from the Libertarian candidate.
But even if KCCI still considers Porter’s campaign unviable, it is hard to see how KCCI could consider his 2018 candidacy less viable than Joe Grandanette’s 2014 candidacy.
News Growl contacted Grandanette to ask if the station had discussed any criteria with him in 2014, or asked him to provide any evidence to justify his inclusion in the debate.
“KCCI did not have any requirements to get into the debate,” he said in an email, before adding, “Porter should be in. KCCI is wrong.”
After discovering Grandanette’s inclusion in the 2014 debate, News Growl asked KCCI for an explanation. We received no reply.
Alleged pressure from the Reynolds campaign
In a September 5th tweet, the communications manager from Democratic candidate Fred Hubble’s campaign provided another possible explanation for Porter’s exclusion from the debate.
or giving Iowans the opportunity to see her address the issues most important to them. Despite our attempt to negotiate in good faith, the Reynolds campaign consistently played games with the number of debates, where they were, and who could be excluded (Hi @jakedporter 👋). 4/7
— Michelle Gajewski (@MGajewski) September 5, 2018
We asked Gajewski for clarification of her tweet, but received no reply. It does strongly imply, however, that she believes the Reynolds campaign has been pressuring debate organizers to exclude Jake Porter.
It is not uncommon for politicians, especially incumbents, to refuse debates until they secure concessions from the organizers. But in this instance, Iowa’s top elected official is allegedly pressuring private media organizations to deny coverage to one of Iowa’s three legally-recognized major parties.
Put that way, the implications of Gajewski’s allegations are much more ominous.
News Growl asked KCCI if they have been pressured by the Reynolds campaign to exclude Porter, but received no reply.
The Register declines to register an opinion
News Growl also contacted debate co-hosts the Des Moines Register for their position. Executive Editor Carol Hunter replied. Speaking of the decision to exclude Porter she said:
“That was a joint decision made by the Register and KCCI, and I represented the Register in those discussions. Since you’ve spoken with representatives of KCCI, I see no reason to respond further.”
But The Gazette does
While KCCI and the Register are sticking to their decision to exclude Porter, other Iowa media are not afraid to voice their disquiet.
In a staff editorial published on September 13th, journalists at Ceder Rapids-based The Gazette wrote:
“Iowa law requires official political parties to have a candidate for governor or president earn at least 2 percent statewide every two years. Libertarian Gary Johnson surpassed that mark in 2016, and the Libertarians are now one of three major parties under the law.
“The media necessarily serves some sort of gatekeeper function in American politics. There simply aren’t enough reporters, newspaper pages or local broadcast news minutes to give every race and every candidate equal attention. Official party status seems a reasonable standard for debate access.
“No doubt, Libertarians face long odds. But when Republicans and Democrats run races with no chance to win, they still are invited to participate in the basic traditions of our republic. Consider Utah hasn’t elected a Democrat governor in 38 years and the last political sacrificial lamb earned just 29 percent. He still participated in three debates.”
Is not being a Democrat or Republican the problem?
While KCCI’s debate policy had been politically inclusive in previous years, it is possible that being a Democrat or a Republican might be one of the unnamed criteria they consider when deciding who to include.
After losing the Republican 3rd District primary again in 2016, Joe Grandanette ran in the general election as an independent. He is also running as a pro-Trump independent for the same office in 2018. But, according to Grandanette, since dropping his major-party affiliation KCCI has stopped inviting him to debates.
Jake Porter: still fighting
Although there is no sign that KCCI or the Register will change their minds, Porter and his Libertarian supporters are still working hard to make the fallout for the media outlets as awkward as possible. A protest is being organized for the night of the debate, and his supporters are collecting names of KCCI advertisers for so-far unspecified action.
What does the candidate himself think of his exclusion? Speaking to News Growl, Porter says he thinks KCCI may be succumbing to political pressure.
“In the past, KCCI has included candidates who were unlikely to win. I find it odd that their criteria changed as soon as the Reynolds campaign didn’t want me to debate.”
Editor’s note: both the Reynolds campaign and the Hubbell campaign were invited to contribute to this report but did not reply to our requests.