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Iowa Brownout

The Des Moines Register is throwing a party and Jerry Brown’s not invited. So come January, Brown will have to stand out in the cold while President Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy square off under the warmth of television camera lights in the Register’s presidential candidates debate. Brown would like to bask in the warmth too. But the Register’s editors say no.

The editors have invited only those presidential candidates who, they said, are “genuinely competing” for votes in the Iowa caucuses. Kennedy, who has called Iowa his big test, and Carter, who was there first, have a great deal of money and people invested in Iowa: that’s why they were invited. Brown doesn’t even have a campaign office in the state. “He is a presidential candidate but he is not a candidate in Iowa,” the Register’s editorial page editor, Gil Cranberg, said. On that basis, Brown was not included in the debate.

Brown isn’t very happy about the exclusion. On NBC’s “Meet The Press,” he said it was “an outrage.” He forlornly dubbed the exclusion a “gag rule” and said it was “totally inconsistent with freedom of the press.”

James Gannon, the Register’s executive editor and the person who conceived the debate, said that Brown has made no attempt to get Iowa votes. He also feels that Brown has snubbed his paper. Gannon recalled that Cranberg tried repeatedly without success last August to arrange a telephone interview with the California governor. The transcript of the interview was to be published on the newspaper’s editorial page. But, according to Cranberg, all they got from Brown was “the run-a-round.”

Gannon said that now there is a chance for national publicity. Brown suddenly is interested. But as far as the Register’s editors are concerned, it’s too late for that. “Brown can’t have it both ways,” Gannon said. What he means is that Brown can't ignore the Register and then expect an invitation to the party.

Gannon insists that his newspaper’s motive in excluding Brown is not that of the jilted damsel. He said the debate was conceived for the benefit of Iowans and was not intended to be a nationally televised event. “My first responsibility is to the people of [Iowa],” Gannon said. “I'm not responsible to Brown.”

The Register claims to be responsible first to Iowa. But what service is it to Iowans to prevent them from hearing Brown? The Register didn’t ask the people of Iowa whether they wanted to see how Brown stacks up against Carter and Kennedy. It decided that because Brown didn’t seem interested, Iowans shouldn't see Brown debate his opponents face to face.

The disservice is not restricted to Iowa. The Register said the debate was not proposed with the idea that it would be a nationally televised event and is proceeding on that basis. Whether the debate was intended strictly for Iowans makes no difference. If the president is debating his political opponents for reelection, it’s a safe bet the event will be covered live and in color by the networks and broadcast coast to coast. In a national context, the Register’s reason for excluding Brown seems even more obtuse. The Register doesn't think anyone in the country should see Carter, Kennedy, and Brown debate because Brown has ignored Iowa?

Because the Register is a private institution, it can invite whomever it wishes to debate. That is the law, but an institution of the Register’s character might be expected to aspire to a higher standard of fairness. A debate like this instantly becomes the kind of national event that makes or breaks candidates. If the Register excludes Brown from this debate, it is virtually saying he is not a viable candidate. That is something the voters should decide, not a newspaper.

This article originally appeared in the November 24, 1979, issue of the magazine.