-Caveat Lector-

February 2001
My Untold Story


What if we threw a presidential campaign and nobody came? The Green Party's
candidate explains how he tried to engage the press, and why it didn't work.

By Ralph Nader

On the afternoon of February 21, 2000, I declared my candidacy for the
Green Party presidential nomination at The Madison Hotel in Washington,
D.C., before an impressive assemblage of media. All the major television
networks, including CNN and PBS, were on hand, as were radio and print
reporters. My announcement speech focused on the "democracy gap" in our
country, which helps explain the gap between many systemic injustices and
lost opportunities, on the one hand, and the solutions that are ignored
because of an excessive concentration of power and wealth.
That evening, none of the broadcast networks reported that I had entered
the race. The next morning The New York Times ran a short article, and the
day after that The Washington Post carried a squib.
Challenging the entrenched two-party system under a winner-take-all rule is
akin to climbing a sheer cliff with a slippery rope. Without instant runoff
voting or proportional representation voting mechanisms that can allow
smaller political parties to share in governmentit is a task far more
difficult than in any other Western democracy. The Republican and
Democratic parties command the money and wield the power to exclude other
candidates from the presidential debates, and to erect formidable statutory
barriers against competitors trying to get on the ballot in many states.
But perhaps the most insurmountable obstacle of all is the virtual lock
enjoyed by the two major parties on coverage in the national media.
The national press's insistence on focusing its attention on the horse race
between the two major-party candidates creates a catch-22 for any
third-party candidate who wants to inject previously ignored issues into
the campaign dialogue: Without coverage, you can't make headway in the
polls. And a poor showing in the polls in turn distances the media from the
campaign.  Meanwhile, the issues your campaign seeks to address remain
below the radar of the major candidates and the campaign press. Having
worked with the print and broadcast media throughout my career as a
consumer advocate, I had no illusions when I launched my campaign about the
difficulties I would face in convincing reporters, editors, and producers
for the major news outlets that my candidacy deserved their coverage.
As it turns out, the major media organizations did cover our campaign. But
they consistently viewed it as an occasional feature story, a colorful,
narrative dispatch from the trail with a marginal candidate, rather than a
news story about my proposals or campaign events designed to focus
attention on our agenda. During the months when I was traveling through the
50 states, the local press usually reported on the visits, but the national
print and electronic media didn't. Instead, they'd parachute in a reporter
to travel with us for a few days and file a profile of our campaign that
focused on personality and the so-called spoiler issue rather than on
substance. We were never a news beat, even when the margins narrowed
between Al Gore and George W. Bush during the last month and made our
voters more consequential.
Back in the spring, however, hope sprung eternal. In April, a Zogby America
poll put us at 5 percent nationwide. Our audiences were growing, and we had
an exhaustive agenda that was of compelling concern to millions of
Americans. We supported a living wage; stronger trade-union organization
laws; universal health insurance; strong environmental measures;
redirection of public budgets from corporate welfare to neighborhood and
community needs; a crackdown on corporate crime against consumers,
especially those in ghettos; public funding of election campaigns;
protection of the small-farm economy from giant agribusiness abuses;
abolition of the death penalty; an alternative to the failed war on drugs;
and a military and foreign policy that wages peace, justice, and democracy
instead of preparing for war against no known major enemies.
These were issues that, over the years, many news outlets had reported on,
investigated, and editorialized about. Bush and Gore were either ignoring
the subjects altogether or taking positions opposite mine, and their
respective records of failing to address them, well known to the media for
years, gave further credibility to our agenda. We had a long track record,
and we weren't offering easy rhetoric. Finally, as the weeks unfolded, the
Nader/LaDuke ticket was qualifying on 44 state ballots, far exceeding any
potential Electoral College majority.
Equipped with these arguments, I paid a visit in May to Jim Roberts, the
political editor of The New York Times. Unlike some reporters and editors
at the Times, Roberts appeared genuinely open to our requests for more
regular coverage. I asked him whether the Times had any overall
newsworthiness criteria for covering significant third-party candidates,
and he allowed that there were no specific standards, implying that Times
editors made judgment calls as events unfolded. When I asked for examples
of what would qualify as a newsworthy event, he replied, "If you do
anything with Pat Buchanan, or when you campaign in California, I'd be
interested." At the time, California was considered a must-win state for
Gore and favorable territory for our candidacy.
In the following weeks, I put this question about newsworthiness to the
many newspaper editorial boards that I met with around the country and to
other reporters, editors, and producers. The responses were either
noncommittal or related to our impact on the Gore-Bush competition.
No matter what our campaign tried or accomplished, the media remained stuck
in a cultural rut, covering the horse race and political tactics of Gore
and Bush rather than the issues. This was the case in the reporting, the
editorials, the television punditry, the columns, and even many of the
political cartoons. We sent open letters to Bush and Gore, challenging them
(in a nice way) to take positions that would enrich the presidential
campaign dialogue, on farm policy, genetic engineering, corporate welfare,
the living wage, even simply urging all members of Congress to post their
voting records in an easily searchable fashion on their websites, as none
currently does. There were no responses from Bush and Gore, and there was
never, to my knowledge, one media attempt to elicit such.
The Washington Post was in one of the deepest ruts, to the point of
amusement in our campaign office. Although the Post provided ample space
(750 words or so) one day in early summer for an article headlined "Gore,
Family Taking It Easy in N.C.," it barely took notice when we filled New
York City's Madison Square Garden in October with one of our rallies. Nor
could the Post find a reporter to cover one of our press conferences, held
right across the street from the paper's headquarters, that exposed the
phony crisis of Social Security being peddled, for different reasons, by
Bush and Gore. (Being a news-reporting organization, The Associated Press
sent the story over its wires.) Unlike the Times, however, the Post did
invite me to an editorial board meeting, from which political correspondent
David S. Broder produced an accurate article the next day. And the Post's
op-ed page, again unlike the Times which delivered a string of hysterical
editorials accusing my campaign of "cluttering" the field between Bush and
Gore, invited me to write an op-ed piece. But by and large, the Post
covered the campaign with a feature, not a news, mentality, as did the
other major papers.
The Post's Dana Milbank, for instance, followed us in California for four
days in August and produced a story for the paper's "Style" section that
made much of the fact that radical leftists don't think I'm sufficiently
committed to identity politics, that the host of a San Diego fund-raiser
served "soy cheese quesadillas," and that we stayed at a wealthy friend's
house in Santa Barbara. Milbank didn't, however, mention any of our policy
proposals or, for instance, the discussion I led in San Diego on border
issues, at which he was present. He ended his visit with our campaign by
driving north to San Francisco to, he said, meet up with some of his Yale
buddies before catching a flight. Had he stayed on, he could have attended
a meeting we held to show support for California's migrant farmworkers.
There were reporters, like Maria Recio of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and
Tom Squitieri of USA Today, who saw early on the significance of our
campaign both directly for its agenda and indirectly for its impact on the
major-party candidates, and who persuaded their editors to allow more
regular travel with the campaign. Their sense of the campaign's importance
was shared by Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press, who invited me on his
show five times, and Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball With Chris
Matthews, who had me on three times.
We kept trying. Bill Hillsman, the Minneapolis media consultant whose ads
helped Jesse Ventura win Minnesota's gubernatorial race in 1998, produced
our first political advertisement, a parody of the MasterCard "priceless"
ad. It received widespread accolades in the media for its accuracy, its
humor, and its focus on getting included in the debates. MasterCard's
foolish lawsuit for copyright infringement only focused more attention on
the ad and the campaign it represented.
Our press office suggested issuing immediate responses to stands taken by
the major candidates. We would, for example, offer a prompt comment on
positions taken by Gore or Bush on rising energy prices, a topic we have
worked on for many years, but nary a paragraph would appear in the lead
stories reflecting our response or alternative proposal.
Our next campaign step, one that we believed would surely catapult the
ticket to more regular national news coverage, was holding what we liked to
call Super Rallies. Starting with a jam-packed Portland Coliseum, we
launched a series of rallies held in coliseums in Minneapolis, Seattle,
Boston, Chicago, New York City, Oakland, Long Beach, and Washington, D.C.
The audiences, which paid for tickets (starting at $7) to the events,
ranged from around 9,000 to 15,000 people, and the events received good
local media coverage.
Having by far the largest paid political rallies of any presidential
candidate, however, still did not break through the national media's focus
on the horse race, though it did encourage more questions about my being a
"spoiler." The question became so repetitive that the reporters would
preface themselves by saying, "I know you've been asked about this a
thousand times" before asking me how I felt about possibly causing Al Gore
to lose the election. I would reply that only Al Gore can defeat Al Gore,
and he's been doing a pretty good job at that. Then I would add that we are
trying to build a long-range political reform movement to dislodge the
control of our government from the grip of the permanent corporate
government in Washington, D.C., represented by more than 16,000 lobbyists
swarming over the city, with their nearly 1,600 corporate political action
committees and soft-money contributions, fueling both parties with
equal-opportunity corruption.
Still, if the major news outlets really believed that we had a chance of
taking the election out of Gore's hands (in the last weeks of the campaign,
one radio reporter even asked me how it felt to be the most powerful
politician in the country, implying that I was about to hand the election
to Bush), they didn't reflect that in their coverage. We had rented a
campaign van with 14 seats to accommodate an expected increase in the
number of reporters traveling with us. Needless to say, we had empty seats
in the van.
Notwithstanding rigorous campaigning in urban, suburban, and rural areas,
there was no way to reach the public without getting into the presidential
debates. Despite editorials in nearly a dozen major newspapers urging my
inclusion, not to mention several national polls indicating that the
majority of the public wanted me to participate, the Commission on
Presidential Debates (CPD) limited the debates to the Democratic and
Republican candidates. The CPD is a private corporation created by members
of the Republican and Democratic parties. It is co-chaired by a Republican
and a Democrat, has been funded largely by corporate funds (beer, auto,
telecommunications, tobacco, etc.), and holds the keys to reaching tens of
millions of voters who watch the presidential debates. The CPD sets the
format for each debate, selects the moderator (in this case, Jim Lehrer),
and sets the unrealistically high admission barrier of 15 percent support
in polls conducted by subsidiaries of the major media corporations, the
same media corporations whose editors, reporters, and producers determine
the level of coverage for third-party candidates, thus excluding any
competitors from the stage.
There was remarkably little news coverage of, or challenge to, this
cleverly exclusionary device, which indirectly places access to the debates
in the hands of the media. No coverage, no poll movement.  Giving the CPD a
monopoly of access to the American people on behalf of the Republican and
Democratic candidates was a default of major magnitude by the television
networks. Other institutions could have sponsored multicandidate debates
that Gore and Bush could not have afforded to ignore. I wrote open letters
to the networks and to several industrial unions suggesting such
sponsorship. The unions did not reply, and Fox News Channel, ABC, and MSNBC
sent noncommittal responses or offered unacceptable alternatives that
didn't include participation by Bush and Gore. Our efforts in this regard
received no coverage or commentary.
Given the media's largely showcase coverage of the two major candidates,
redundantly reporting the same mantras and slogans day after day, the CPD's
shutdown role was crucially destructive of what could have been a more
diverse, competitive, and interesting presidential campaign year. The CPD
has learned what being in the debates did for John Anderson in 1980, Ross
Perot in 1992, and Jesse Ventura (on the state level) in 1998. It was not
about to advance the political visibility of any more third-party or
independent candidacies. This did not upset the commercial media very much,
though it did galvanize progressive community weeklies and independent
media outlets into making the "Let Ralph Debate" movement prominent within
their relatively small audiences.
Interestingly enough, talk radio was far more open to hearing and
questioning the candidates through audience call-ins than all the other
mainstream media combined. This was one forum where sentences and even
paragraphs could be introduced to the airways without the pressure of
sound-bite management. Again and again, the hosts would complain to me that
their invitations to Gore and Bush to come on the show had been turned down
or simply ignored.  The handlers of their scripted campaigns do not find
the unmanaged radio talk show congenial to the force fields erected around
their candidates.
The one tenet of our campaign that the established commentators and
reporters wrote about most often was what reformers call "dirty money
politics." I read with amazement one editorial after another in the Times,
the Post, and regional papers excoriating the soft-money binges, the lavish
fund-raisers, the Niagara of money flowing into both major-party coffers at
countless events, including the Republican and Democratic conventions,
which were both billboarded with corporate logos. Yet rarely did my
campaign or any other Green Party candidates for lesser offices receive any
recognition for refusing to take soft money, corporate money, PAC money, or
any such contributions to our national nominating convention in June. We
set an example widely desired by media commentators and were ignored, which
demonstrates once again that the media's lens does not see beyond the
two-party duopoly.
In October, we tried one more way of persuading editors and producers to
pay attention to the corporate power abuses that we were highlighting. Our
researchers compiled nearly 200 investigative articles and television
exposes on subjects that were related to our agenda. They ranged from the
brilliant 1998 Time magazine cover story on corporate welfare by Donald L.
Barlett and James B. Steele to prominent stories about environmental,
consumer, investor, taxpayer, and worker injustices committed by major
corporations and reported by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,
The Washington Post, The Associated Press, 60 Minutes, The Boston Globe,
and others.
We pointed out to these papers and programs that their own reporters had
written these articles but that the policy questions they raised had not
found their way into the presidential campaign dialogue. I asked one Time
magazine staffer why campaign reporters didn't raise the subject of
corporate welfare with Bush and Gore. His reply was "It is hard on the
trail to reach the candidates, and when you do break through, they don't
answer the question." Well, what about when Gore and Bush went on the
Sunday interview shows or granted long interviews to major papers and
magazines or answered their questionnaires? Or at the debates? Or during
the more accessible primary season? There are opportunities for a
determined press corps, particularly a press corps that demands regular
press conferences, to force answers on these questions. Instead they settle
for exclusive snippets or asides on the campaign plane.
After all the pages written about Bush and Gore, their youths, their early
years in politics, their position papers for their campaigns, their daily
sound bites, their sallies against each other -- precious little came to
the public's attention about their actual records, in contrast to their
rhetoric. In July 1999, the Post's Broder wrote that Bush's "five-year
record in public office is largely unexamined." Gore was a media escapee
when it came to separating his speeches from his record on things as varied
as the environment, drug prices here and abroad, corporate subsidies, and
his continuing daily promise to fight "big oil," "big HMOs," insurance
companies, and the big chemical companies. His record is rich in surrender
to or support of those and other big-business interests, including car
companies, the biotechnology industry, the oil giants, and the banking,
agribusiness, and telecommunications goliaths.  The contrasts between the
records of these two men and their campaign-trail verbiage begged for media
examination. Only a few articles in small magazines such as The Nation and
Mother Jones, together with infrequent mass-media asides, rose to the
Former Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz summed up the situation this
way: "The issues owed serious, sustained coverage are predominately the
issues that the candidates select, usually in their own self-interest."
But there is also a self-interest on the part of the major media
conglomerates. They are, after all, businesses that rely on advertising
revenue and the goodwill of the surrounding business community. The
increasing concentration of the media business ensures that standardized,
homogenized material is squeezed into the narrow news slots on television.
The decline in the quality of the networks' news coverage of the
presidential campaigns has been unrelenting every four years, a slide that
is not made up by their much smaller cable affiliates, such as MSNBC.
Whatever the desires of reporters and their editors, the top echelons of
these companies are simply not eager to examine the consequences of
concentrated corporate power in the context of political campaign coverage.
Policies on street crime regularly make the evening news; policies on
corporate crime don't. Welfare reform proposals are always newsworthy,
corporate welfare reform rarely.  There are not many mainstream, big-time
magazines like Business Week, which prominently displayed its journalistic
acumen and integrity on the cover of its September 11, 2000, edition. "Too
Much Corporate Power?" asked the cover story. Inside, in pages of
devastating details, Business Week replied "Yes" and then, in a remarkable
editorial, urged corporations to "get out of politics."
There is one hero in this story who often goes unsung. Brian Lamb, the
creator of C-SPAN, convinced the cable industry years ago that serious
events deserve unedited coverage. In all the giant United States, the
communications leader of the world, only C-SPAN covers entire events
regularly during a presidential campaign. That fulsomeness speaks volumes
about the vacuum that surrounds it.
There were other efforts in the last campaign to get the media and the
major candidates to address substantive issues, notably Morton Mintz's
series of 28 cogent and concise articles for TomPaine.com on a wide range
of subjects "that powerfully affect us all" and were aimed at "Mr. or Ms.
Presidential, Vice Presidential, or Senate or House candidate." The series
received substantial visibility when one of Mintz's pieces was excerpted in
an advertorial on The New York Times's op-ed page. Still, his work came
largely to naught: "I didn't get a single reaction of any kind from any
political editor or reporter involved in covering the campaigns," he told
me. The lesson of that silence is clear: No democracy worth its salt should
rely so pervasively on the commercial media. And no seriously pro-democracy
campaign will ever get an even break, or adequate coverage, from that media.

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