Johnson had just bolstered the Libertarian ticket by adding former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld as his running mate, and as it became clear that Republicans and Democrats were about to nominate historically unpopular candidates, the media gave Johnson a closer look than at any other point in the race. When CNN hosted a town hall event for Johnson and Weld on June 22, it marked the first-ever event of its kind for a Libertarian presidential candidate — live in prime time on one of the three major cable news channels.
Since then, however, the spotlight has faded. CNN held another Libertarian town hall this week but, like the first, it still failed to draw as many total viewers as regular programming on Fox News and MSNBC. After back-to-back conventions for the Republicans and Democrats and a week when Donald Trump's conflicts with a Gold Star family and his own party leaders dominated headlines, there seemed to be little room for Johnson, whose poll numbers have flat-lined.
Who is to blame for Johnson's inertia? Did he fail to make the most of an opportunity when he had one, or is the press just not taking him seriously enough? I asked America's best-known Libertarian journalist, Fox Business Network's John Stossel, to weigh in. Stossel moderated a Libertarian debate in April and will host a town hall with Johnson and Weld Aug. 26. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
THE FIX: Have you observed the same thing I have — that coverage of Gary Johnson is in decline?
STOSSEL: Yes, and it beats me as to why. As someone who came to [libertarianism] later in life, from being on the left, it was such an epiphany that I believed other people would wake up to it once it was explained to them. But that hasn't happened. Maybe it will still happen; maybe people come to it slowly. But I'm frustrated and bewildered. These are two sane, ex-governors from Democratic states, reelected — each of them — and they can't even get on the radar screen.
THE FIX: Who are you frustrated with? Is it your colleagues in the press for not covering them enough, or is it Johnson for not doing enough to attract earned media?
STOSSEL: He's trying. I don't claim to have the answer to what will attract the media. After we do our town hall at the end of August, he'll suddenly get to 40 percent in the polling, he'll get into the debates, and people will see that they are so much better than Donald and Hillary, and the Libertarians will finally get to show how limited government works better. That's obviously wishful thinking, but that's my scenario.
THE FIX: How would you grade Gary Johnson as a media figure?
STOSSEL: B-minus. He is a little verbally low-key. His answers could be simpler. He could appear more energetic, though frankly we Libertarians don't like energetic candidates. We think they do more harm.
THE FIX: And how would you grade the press for coverage of the Libertarian ticket?
STOSSEL: I would give them all an F. They have largely failed to cover Libertarian ideas. They smear us with the usual lines: we don't care about poor people, we don't want to honor any borders, we don't want to keep the country safe. The nuance is more complicated.
THE FIX: You've been in newsrooms for a long time, so what do you think stops us from covering Johnson more? Some of it is based on polls, obviously.
STOSSEL: People like the simple answer to put in a story. There's a problem. Hillary proposes this solution. People say it will make things better. That's a simple theme. It's harder to cover someone who says, "Let's do less of this micromanagement, and here's how the free market will solve it better." It's much harder to explain in a news story. Libertarianism doesn't lend itself to simplicity.