The Great Debater

Finally, Dennis Kucinich’s What about me? debate theatrics are paying off.

Initially, NBC said it would include him in tonight’s Las Vegas debate. Last week the network disinvited him, saying it was “redoing” the inclusion criteria. Kucinich promptly sued NBC (read the complaint here ), and a Nevada judge ruled yesterday that NBC must include Kucinich or the debate would be called off.

NBC is now appealing the decision to the Nevada Supreme Court (read the petition here ). “We disagree with the judge’s ruling, and we’re appealing,” NBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines said. There is currently no hearing scheduled , but hey, they’ve still got what, seven hours?

The question is, does Kunichich have a legal right to participate in debates? If so, what law requires a TV network to include him? In his complaint, Kucinich argues that his exclusion

undermines the purpose of the Federal Communications Act and is a blatant violation of the Act because of the media’s obligation to … ‘operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of issues of public importance.’ NBC revised its criteria to specifically exclude the diverse and anti-war voice of Kucinich and his grass-roots supporters. This specific exclusion is further highlighted by the fact that NBC has not provided Kucinich with any revised criteria.

But are networks even required to give inclusion criteria? If anything, it seems like more of a courtesy. Even when the Democratic National Committee sponsors a debate—it has held six so far this cycle—it lets the networks decide which candidates to include.

Here was the district judge’s rationale for siding with Kucinich, as reported by the AP :

Thompson called it a matter of fairness and said Nevada voters will benefit by hearing from more than just top contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Pretty nebulous, no? That sounds more like a personal judgment than a legal basis.

Eric Easton, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, told me he was skeptical about the FCA “public interest” clause Kucinich invoked: “That clause in the FCA is so huge and so unfocused that it’s a justification for anything.”

But unless NBC’s appeal goes through today, Kucinich will have to be included. The congressman has already flown out to Las Vegas, according to a spokeswoman.

UPDATE 6:20 p.m.:

Fraysters rightly point out that Kucinich also claims NBC breached its contract with him when they rescinded his invitation. NBC’s response, in its filing today: “If such an unprecedented theory is adopted here, it would mean thatnews organizations would be forbidden from making timely decisionsabout who or what to feature in their programming based on dailydevelopments in news for fear that a previously invited guest couldassert a breach of contract claim.” We’ll leave the specifics of Nevada contact law to the experts–or to the court, which should have a ruling soon.