Televised political debates have become a staple of modern elections. Proponents of open access to such debates argue that third party participation is a democratic necessity. They see as catastrophic the Supreme Court's decision in Arkansas Educational Television Commission v. Forbes, in which a state broadcaster was given the discretion to exclude a minor party candidate from a televised debate so long as the decision was viewpoint-neutral. This Article reads the Court's decision as a functional, "second best" solution that seeks to mediate the expressive and democratic values implicated in both open and closed access models. More generally, the Article sees in Forbes germs of an institution-balancing vision of politics in the media. Under this approach, public broadcasters would be empowered to serve as realistic programming counterweights to the electoral coverage of the commercial media. While there are reasons to be skeptical about the ultimate effectiveness of this institution-balancing strategy, only until refined, election-specific and historically-grounded data are collected and assessed in a context-specific fashion can we begin to evaluate the Court's approach in application.
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