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Politically Motivated Barrier to Open Debate
Sets a Bad Precedent for Alaskan Democracy
by Ralph Nader


October 28, 2004

I was disappointed to learn that an exclusionary barrier of a required 5% showing in pre-debate polling has been introduced for a candidate to participate in upcoming US Senatorial debates on both commercial and on public TV and radio. It appears this was done to mollify Democratic challenger and former Governor Tony Knowles who had demanded a 15% barrier comparable to the one placed before me by the Republican and Democratic controlled Commission on Presidential Debates. To import this undemocratic standard, introduced nationally after Ross Perot was allowed into the 1992 debates and, afterwards, drew 19 percent voter support, takes Alaska in a direction entirely inappropriate for a state known for its tolerance of political independence and diversity.

It is especially injurious to residents of rural Alaska since the two debates televised statewide will now exclude Jim Sykes. For public radio and TV to cave into this political pressure is especially outrageous. I am reminded of the difficulty that public station KAKM TV had in showing the interview I had with Anchorage journalists in 2000. Only public pressure caused the station to finally show it. Even so, it may have cost the moderator his job.

This exclusion is completely out of character for Alaska when it comes to the use of public television and radio as each meets the challenge of political involvement by Alaskans statewide . KTOO, the producer of the upcoming debate, offers "Gavel to Gavel" statewide. It provides a televised look at legislative committee hearings and floor sessions during the entire legislative session to every Alaska community. Alaskans participate telephonically in committee hearings.It is obvious KTOO has a deep appreciation of the special demands created by Alaska's disbursed population when critical debates on public policy occur. This exclusion is a serious reversal of what has been an exemplary reverence for open political debate.

Governor Knowles' perhaps well-grounded fear of Jim Sykes has been translated into a public policy with far reaching consequences as it sets a precedent and draws a bright line between well-heeled campaigns and those less well funded. Look at for a comparative examination of the finances of the Knowles, Murkowski and Sykes campaigns, each of which has met FEC guidelines of disclosure. Knowles and Murkowski have collected and spent upwards of 4 million dollars each, their contributions from multinational corporations and other special interests. Sykes refused outside contributions and spent about $8,000.

What Knowles fears are reminders of his avid support and use of state funds to fight for an even  bigger oil monopoly with approval of the purchase of ARCO by BP, a deal thankfully blocked by the FTC after hard work by Sykes and other activists, his dismissal of consumer interests by approving the merger of Safeway and Carr's supermarkets and his support for so-called tort reform legislation which provides new legal immunities for corporate behavior even as serious  as a future Exxon Valdez spill. Since both Murkowski and Knowles approve of the present acquiescence of state government to demands of the natural resources industry, and since both major party candidates favor such drains on other budgetary needs as the missile defense boondoggle, the opposing views on these and many other issues will never be heard in debate before a statewide audience without Jim Sykes. Which candidate will press for a fair share of windfall profits for Alaska oil now at over fifty dollars a barrel? Which will seek appropriate environmental protections for future pipe line accidents? Both the direction and content of the debate has been predetermined to the detriment of Alaskans by this arbitrary rule of exclusion. Sykes speaks to rural Alaska because of his substantial work experience in the bush, including direct involvement in the Berger Commission which held village hearings across Alaska. Rural Alaska's perspective will be left out of the upcoming debates and rural Alaskans who do not travel to the AFN convention will not see and hear Sykes in their home villages as he engages his already well advertised competition. Murkowski and Knowles have plastered Alaska with media hits and sound bites which Sykes cannot afford or counter.

I hope Alaskans protest this new political censorship by conditioning future contributions to public broadcasting on a change of this new standard before it becomes permanent. Just as it limits robust debate at the national, Presidential level, so, also, does it diminish both the content of debate and limits participation in that debate before Alaska's far flung populace.

Ralph Nader
Candidate for President, Populist Party of Alaska



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