Forty-eight hours before the first polls close on Election Day 2012, four longshot presidential candidates held one of the final debates of the political season less than two miles from the White House.
Little about this debate resembled the three showdowns between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in October. The setting was a cramped back room of a restaurant-bookstore, not a cavernous college campus arena. Candidates debated beneath portraits of the Dalai Lama, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., not the Declaration of Independence and a giant eagle. The host was a prominent former third-party candidate, not a broadcast journalist. The debate covered global warming, the minimum wage and Washington, D.C., voting rights, issues that weren't touched in the major-party candidates' debates. Candidates were able to ask each other pointed questions, which was expressly prohibited in the Obama-Romney debates.
This Ralph Nader-moderated forum featuring Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party), Jill Stein (Green Party), Virgil Goode (Constitution Party) and Rocky Anderson (Justice Party) was live-streamed over the Internet. A smattering of scribes interviewed candidates on stage after the debate, a far cry from the Commission on Presidential Debates-sponsored media spectacles featuring a spin room, hordes of journalists and press flacks, and post-debate analysis from pundits on makeshift television sets.
Along with being shut out of mainstream presidential debates and unable to qualify for some ballots across the country, third-party candidates have grown accustomed to limited press coverage during this and other recent election cycles.
Stein, who was arrested along with her running mate after attempting to crash the second presidential debate, has been a vocal critic of the Commission on Presidential Debates' rule that candidates must reach 15 percent in national polls to participate. She also blames journalists for shunning third-party candidates.
"It's fair to say that democracy is under lockdown," she says. "Media have been working very hard to suppress knowledge that there are alternative candidates out there... The state of our media is emblematic of the state of our democracy – it's bought and paid for."
Johnson and Anderson used their opening statements in Sunday's debate to condemn news outlets that have largely ignored their campaigns. While the candidates focused on who's not covering them, the debate provided a snapshot of who is. A Nader representative said upwards of 60 news outlets--among them NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, Reuters, CNN, Salon, Politico, Roll Call and the New Republic -- had registered to cover the event. Ben Adler, who typically covers Republican and conservative politics and media for The Nation, says he decided to cover the debate at the last minute because it provided a change of pace two days before the election.
Then there's Garrett Quinn, who has followed Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico, across roughly 15 states since the spring for Reason, a Libertarian magazine.
"As far as the Gary Johnson press corps, you're looking at it," Quinn says. "It can be a lonely existence. There's no one to bounce ideas off day to day. It's just you."
On the bright side, Quinn says, he has plenty of access to Johnson at every campaign stop.
Few news outlets have provided the kind of comprehensive third-party coverage that Quinn has this election cycle. But a small number have gone beyond cursory coverage. "Democracy Now!" a public radio program, has been among the biggest champions of third-party candidates. For its "Expanding the Debate" series, the show invited candidates who were excluded from the presidential and vice presidential debates to provide their own responses to moderator questions. "Democracy Now!" paused after the Republican and Democratic candidates' responses to allow its invited participants to give their answers.
"It was absolutely wonderful," Stein says. " 'Democracy Now!' is the example of the exception. They aren't corporate sponsored and they are truly doing independent journalism. After the third debate, [the third party candidates] all agreed that this should be the rule and not the exception. We should be able to know there will be a real-time rebuttal and truth-telling available for the American people."
USA Today opened its editorial page for third-party candidates to answer one question from each debate. Stein responded to a question about energy policy and Johnson about a college student's employment prospects after graduation.
C-SPAN aired a third-party presidential debate in late October--an event that received as much attention for its host (Larry King) as for the debate itself. C-SPAN also has included Johnson's platform alongside Obama's and Romney's on issues including the economy, natural security and immigration.
Brian Lamb, the founder and executive chairman of C-SPAN, says the station has long strived for comprehensive political coverage of debates, conventions and individual appearances.
"We made a decision 30 years ago that we intend to give third parties as much coverage as we could," Lamb says. "We've had hundreds of hours about third parties over the years. It's the spirit of the place to give as much opportunity to candidates outside the two main parties. There are more than two parties and more than two thoughts on what's right and what's wrong in politics." The challenge, Lamb says, is weeding out candidates who don't have any campaign structure in place and are "doing it for publicity reasons."
Paul Singer, USA Today politics editor, says the newspaper receives regular calls and e-mails from supporters of third-party candidates urging a widening of political coverage beyond the two major-party candidates. "I want to be responsive to readers' concerns that we're overlooking important news stories, but I'm cautious about being duped by an orchestrated campaign by the campaign to get 25 friends to call me," Singer says.
The perpetual chicken-and-egg questions for news outlets like USA Today is how much attention should be paid to candidates who have little chance of winning the election but whose chances of garnering more support could rise with increased press coverage.
"I'm sympathetic to [candidates'] concern that they can't become major candidates without coverage, but it's not our job to help them become major candidates," Singer says.
Singer says he believes USA Today should cover third-party candidates if they are relevant to a particular political conversation and have demonstrated a level of credibility and organization. When the newspaper ran an article about challenges in getting on state ballots, for instance, Singer decided it was relevant to cover the potential impact of Goode, a former Virginia congressman, on the presidential contest in Virginia. But he says he doesn't feel obligated to insert comments from third-party candidates in a story about squabbles between Democrats and Republicans.
"The reason is, quite simply, because we're talking orders of magnitude, numbers of supporters, amount of money raised," Singer says. "For a national newspaper, it doesn't make sense to write about a dispute about energy policies of Romney versus Obama, and then here are five people who you likely won't be able to vote for. It doesn't add news value for our readers. It's not because we don't care they are out there. It's simply a factor of what do you feel are the important things to tell readers about the presidential campaign."
USA Today's policy for this election cycle is that any candidate who is on the ballot in five states earned a spot on the candidate profile landing page.
"When we built candidate pages for third-party candidates, we made a conscious decision to be a little out of the mainstream," Singer says. "It was the reasonable thing to do given that combined these are individuals you're likely to see on the ballot."
In addition to candidate profiles and other standing features, third-party coverage tends to be about who has announced his or her candidacy, debate appearances (or snubs) and whether candidates are on or off the ballot.
News organizations gave plenty of coverage to the rise and eventual collapse of Americans Elect, the $35 million effort to find a viable third-party candidate. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was among the most ardent supporters of the effort. Obituaries for Americans Elect often characterized the movement's downfall as inevitable.
On the campaign trail, Quinn says he repeatedly hears reporters asking Johnson questions that are not posed to the major-party candidates: Who would you choose between Obama and Romney? What does being a Libertarian actually mean? By far the most common question: How would you feel about being a spoiler for either Obama or Romney?"
Stein says third-party press coverage tends to be sporadic and episodic. Her arrests (she was again taken into custody last week during a Keystone XL protest) have garnered ample press attention.
"Early in the campaign, a variety of mainstream outlets covered the campaign," Stein says. "They opened their door and then slammed it shut."
In response to reader questions about lack of coverage of third-party candidates, Washington Post Ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton wrote last month that coverage of Johnson and Stein "has been scant" and mostly relegated to the paper's Style section. Still, the Post provided live analysis of and fact-checked the October third-party debate sponsored by Democracy Now!
The Post's new daily television show, The Fold, recently interviewed Johnson, Stein and Goode. Pexton, wrote that while it's not the newspaper's job to be boosters for any presidential candidate, the Post should "give voice to the voiceless, even if they can't win and register only in single digits in the polls."
Matthew Zawisky, who worked on Nader's presidential campaigns, says he's seeing less third-party coverage this year than in 2008 and 2004. But John Vaught LaBeaume, a press liaison for the Johnson campaign in Washington, says he's noticed more press coverage during this election for a Libertarian campaign than he's seen in decades.
Johnson appears to have received the most attention of the third-party candidates this election cycle. The former governor is on the ballot in nearly every state.
LaBeaume says news outlets tend to be receptive when he contacts them with specific requests, allowing him to fill Johnson's schedule with press appearances when the candidate comes to Washington.
"We're still not at the point where we're mentioned in a regular story," LeBeaume says. "It's a curious thing. I'm not sure if [journalists] know how to fit [third-party candidates] in. They are used to bifurcated stories."
Apollo Pazell, a media consultant for the Johnson campaign, says he still has a hard time drumming up press coverage. His strategy is a mixture of mass press releases and contacting journalists who are known to provide third-party coverage.
Stein says her campaign's press strategy is largely to work with independent media that have shown an interest in her candidacy.
Third-party candidates are not limited to coverage by the traditional press to publicize their campaigns and issues they support. Debate videos are posted to the Web and shared through social media.
"Third-party candidates can communicate now using YouTube and through their own Web sites," C-SPAN's Lamb says. "They aren't being blocked as they used to be. When we started, we were the only place to find [coverage of debates], but that's not true anymore."