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So, having spent the better part of yesterday evening reading about it, here’s my verdict on the question, “How worried should I be about Lisa Murkowski bullying Dan Fagan?” On a scale of one to ten, with one being “about as worried as I should be by the threat of poisoned Halloween candy” and ten being “about as worried as I should be by nuclear proliferation,” I’d give it a 3.5. I’d give it a higher ranking, but I think the election will take care of Alaska’s Murkowski problem, sparing me any further angst on the subject.
That said, there’s a larger issue here that’s worthy of a seven, at least.
Here’s the background on Murkowski’s write-in campaign. There’s an orthographical point of minor interest here, as an anonymous tipster explained to me:
This all stems from a polling place in Homer, Alaska posting a list of write-in candidates during early voting. The posting/providing of the write-in list is seen as a major advantage to Lisa Murkowski as it will help voters spell her name correctly. This has been a concern as the Division of Elections will have to determine voter intent on all write-in ballots and it’s been wholly unclear how badly misspelled Murkowski’s name can be before the ballot is tossed out.
My sympathies to Murkowski on that one; I full well understand that people with uncommon names ending in “-ski” often see their names misspelled.
Anyway, someone called in to Fagan’s show to suggest he would be signing up as a write-in candidate; Fagan ran with the idea, saying that “when the State acts illegaly to assist one candidate then we must stand up to them.” It ended up not being mere badinage, because some 160 people actually signed up. “Of particular interest,” notes the tipster,
has been the new write-in candidate Lisa M. Lackey. The thought is that any vote for “Lisa M” will now be thrown out as it would be ambiguous whether the vote was for Murkowski or Lackey.
Now, what seems to have happened is that some fellow named Branch Haymans, an Anchorage financial advisor and friend of Murkowski’s–although not a paid member of her staff–called the show to complain.
On Friday morning, Haymans called KFQD and spoke with Joe Campbell, KFQD’s program director. Haymans said he told Campbell that he thought Fagan’s on-air behavior bordered on election tampering, but didn’t threaten legal action or ask for Fagan to be taken off the air.
More importantly, John Tracy, the chief executive of Bradley Reid, which makes Murkowski’s campaign commercials, also called to complain. He apparently first checked with Murkowski’s headquarters. One assumes Bradley Reid is a good source of revenue for Morris Communications, the owner of six Anchorage radio stations, including the one that hosts Fagan.
It doesn’t seem that Tracy made a legal threat: “I’m not claiming that what (Fagan) did was illegal. I simply feel it was wrong,” Tracy said.
So, my verdict? I don’t see evidence that Murkowski’s camp threatened to sue a small radio station into oblivion, but I suspect the hint was given–or perhaps just taken–that it would not be good for business to let Fagan keep talking about this. There’s no First Amendment issue involved here. Fagan doesn’t have a right to express his opinions on that station, and the station certainly has a right to pull a host who seems to be offending their major advertisers. We’d do that in a heartbeat on Ricochet; any private company would. This is why I remind people that it’s important to ask, “Who are the advertisers?” when evaluating the slant of the news. A fact of life. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it always will be–unless you want your news from publicly-funded entities, which gives you NPR at best, Pravda at worst.
That said, this story absolutely does say something about Murkowski’s instincts. Her first reaction wasn’t to respond in public, issue a press release, or encourage debate on the matter; it was to permit people close to her to try to shut the debate down entirely. I don’t care for that instinct in a politician whatsoever; I care for it even less in someone who is in office already.
Above all, the whole thing is a useful case study in the way the news agenda is shaped, every day. We saw the effects very clearly here, but it is more notable for the fact that we saw it than for the fact that it happened–I’m sure this sort of thing happens a lot. A deeper and more interesting question–which ranks quite high on my list of concerns–is this: What do most people in the news industry know better than to say in the first place because no one needs grief from the advertisers?