November 03, 2000 |
|Ralphing on the Media |
|By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer
and Columnist |
first day as a campaign correspondent started just a few miles from my
apartment. Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate polling near five
percent nationwide and even higher on the more liberal West Coast, was
taping an interview with BET's Tavis Smiley at the CNN building on Sunset
It was mid-September, after the traditional Labor Day cut-off that is
supposed to signify the beginning of voter interest in presidential
politics. Al Gore and George W. Bush were running a tight race, and Nader
was coming off a remarkable event in Portland, Ore., three weeks earlier
where he sold 10,500 tickets at $7 a head - the biggest rally thus far by
any candidate in the 2000 campaign.
I expected to be competing for Green Room-space with a dozen or so
reporters from the Los Angeles Times, Daily News, local broadcast outlets,
alternative weeklies and the entertainment press ... in addition to all
the national media - The New York Times, CNBC, National Public Radio -
that have been telling me about every whisper and feint of this eternal
election cycle since early 1999.
It was just me and Jamie Foxx's small crew, until the comic finished
his interview and left, then Nader shambled into the tiny 12th-floor room
and started wolfing down the free pastries. "Boy, this stuff's really
good!" he said.
hour later Nader held a press conference at a small Green Party office
across the street from the Hustler building and not far from the West
Coast headquarters of Inside.com.
|It was just me and Jamie Foxx's small
crew, until the comic finished his interview and left, then
Nader shambled into the tiny 12th-floor room and started
wolfing down the free pastries. "Boy, this stuff's really
good!" he said.|
Six reporters. Maybe.
Five weeks later, every newspaper worth its salt suddenly began running
front-page analysis pieces about how Nader might deliver
the election to Bush, and was at the very least forcing Gore to campaign
in states like Washington that had voted for Dukakis, for crying
out loud. The L.A. Daily News' banner headline of Oct. 25, at about
120-point, was: "Nader, the spoiler?" White House correspondents began
pestering the bony Green with questions they might have considered back
when he declared his candidacy in February, like, "So it doesn't bother
you to be taking away votes from Al Gore?"
consumers of the nation's leading media get approximately three weeks
worth of discussion about the man who may decide the election. Since
nobody important (not even the Associated Press) has followed Nader
full-time up to this point, 95% of the questioning and coverage is about
his role in the national horse race, and whether he (as The New York Times
editorial board has suggested, twice) ought to do the democracy a big favor
and step down. Nader's day-to-day yarns ("the Social Security 'crisis' is
a phony problem invented by George W. Bush to make his Wall Street buddies
even more rich," "People get 90% of their news about elections now from
television") have gone almost completely unexamined in eight months of
campaigning across all 50 states.
|So consumers of the nation's leading
media get approximately three weeks worth of discussion about
the man who may decide the election. Since nobody important
(not even the Associated Press) has followed Nader full-time
up to this point.|
More importantly, voters trying to weigh the merits of his proposals
and philosophy - radical, conventional or otherwise - have not been able
to find that information in the media they are supposed to trust. How many
people, as a result, realize that Ralph would like to double the minimum
wage, subsidize all public college tuition, tax every
single stock transaction, pay reparations for slavery, block hi-tech visas, charge broadcast companies "billions of dollars in rent," pull
U.S. troops home from Europe and Southeast Asia, and unilaterally
withdraw from all world trade agreements?
You don't have to be Norman Solomon or one of those cute little anarchist smurfs to judge the lack of Nader coverage to be
a head-scratching failure. And, as we have seen from Kosovo to Linux culture, traditional media's failure is new media's
opportunity. This is a cheering notion to upstart Web sites trying to make
a name for themselves, but depressing to those of us who crave a
dependable national media.
That is, until that national media begins trying to defend itself.
"I guess if we sensed that the public were really clamoring for more
about Nader we would have given it to them. But the fact remains that this
has been for the entire campaign a two-person race and a very close one at
that, and most people seem to be seeing it that way, and most people seem
to be content with the two choices they have," L.A. Times political
researcher Maffie Ritsch recently told my colleague Jennifer Bleyer at NewsForChange.com.
"There's really a tough judgment call here," said L.A. Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus, a
member of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, on CNN's Reliable
Sources Oct. 29. "Are you going to go out and spend a lot of time
covering someone whose own supporters will admit he really doesn't have a
chance of winning this thing, whose target is five percent? I think most
of us use a rule of thumb, whether this is right or wrong, that well, at
10 percent we'd better start taking you seriously. At 15 percent we're
looking at a real phenomenon."
ht percent," he said, with his typical numeric optimism.
During my first two days on the campaign, Nader made an awkward appearance on the Tonight Show in Burbank, threw a
rally in front of nearly 1,000 students at Long Beach State University, shook down limousine liberals in Brentwood at ex-Viacom
CEO Frank Biondi's mansion, and held a press conference where he charged that the Bridgestone/Firestone deaths were the
"direct result Clinton-Gore de facto deregulation policies." There were
less than eight weeks before the election, and the L.A. Times did not
write a single word about any of it.
The L.A. Times has 1,100 editorial employees. Their bureau in
Washington D.C. - where Nader has his headquarters - is larger than the
newsrooms of many newspapers. What is it that all these people do?
OPPORTUNITIES, LOST & FOUND
NewsForChange.com, by comparison, has two editorial employees. The
site, launched this spring by the progessive do-gooder long-distance
telephone company Working Assets, decided spontaneously this August to tail
Nader full-time until Election Day, using reporters in different parts of
the country. I had been writing political
columns for the site, and took over the Western part of Nader's
Working Assets hardly has the same motivation as a traditional news
organization - its San Francisco office includes a "political department,"
after all - but the company figured that honest, original scrutiny of an
otherwise ignored left-bent presidential run would be a good thing, and a
nice way to boost traffic.
it's worked: Yahoo! Full Coverage has picked up several of the stories,
lefty sites like Tompaine.com, Alternet.org, Commondreams.org, and Bostonphoenix.com have published or linked to a bunch of
the coverage, some daily newspapers have run reprints, and news
organizations from Salon to Reuters have followed up on some of the
reporting. On a good day of Yahoo! links, NewsForChange's traffic has
increased five- and six-fold.
|Given that at least one out of 20 voters
- and surely a larger proportion of Internet users - are
seriously thinking about voting for Ralph Nader in a
skin-tight election, why on earth have these people been
forced to read marginalized Web sites to inform their
A good look through sites posting Nader coverage will illustrate that
these are hardly rooting sections for Ralph. If anything, they reflect the
increasingly hysterical debate among progressives about whether "a vote
for Nader is a vote for Bush," or if "the perfect is the enemy of the
good." At any rate, it's been a pretty cheap way for all of them to serve
their readers and build traffic.
The bigger question is this: Given that at least one out of 20 voters -
and surely a larger proportion of Internet users - are seriously thinking
about voting for Ralph Nader in a skin-tight election, why on earth have
these people been forced to read marginalized Web sites to inform their
An important clue can be found in the straight press' response to this
criticism. Instead of discussing how best to serve their readers, editors
act like knights of a secret order, in charge of protecting the
gravitas of political discourse.
"We're not a public utility," Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor
Jackson Diehl told former Post ombudsman E.R. Shipp in early September.
"We're a newspaper, and we cover things based on what is newsworthy.
People who have half a percent or less following among the public are much
less newsworthy than people with 40 and 50 percent."
treating coverage as some kind of expensive and dangerous gift to be doled
out with grave care, rather than as a responsibility to be weighed against
available resources, editors and producers unwittingly confirm the
pessimistic (and I think incorrect) view among some liberals that the
half-dozen major media companies control the universe.
|An important clue can be found in the
straight press' response to this criticism. Instead of
discussing how best to serve their readers, editors act like
knights of a secret order, in charge of protecting the
gravitas of political discourse.|
"It's in the hands of the mass media whether we're gonna break through
or not," Nader told reporters at Long Beach State. "It all comes down to
the networks, number one, and the three major newspapers that set the
agenda: the [Washington] Post, The [New York] Times, and the [Wall Street]
Some go further and suggest that Nader is being blacked out because of
his politics and anti-media critiques - a concept that surely 98% of
campaign reporters would find ridiculous.
"I think there's a natural hostility among corporate organizations
toward Nader, because they see him as the person who's embarrassed them
endlessly and sees them as part of the national political problem," said
Ben Bagdikian, author of "The Media Monopoly", as quoted in Bleyer's
Nader's Seattle Coalition supporters are only too happy to agree.
"Take a look around the room, and notice who's missing here," a Long
Beach State student declared at a Nader rally. "CNN, nowhere to be found.
ABC and NBC, CBS, nowhere to be found. Why? Because Ralph Nader is a very
dangerous man to these people!"
These kind of ill-researched barkings (and their collorary - that the
masses are sheep manipulated by an all-powerful media oligopoly),
reinforce, I believe, the major media's sense of self-importance, which in
turn makes editors more likely to look down their noses at campaigns and
candidates judged insufficiently "serious." And since Third Party
candidates by definition have an us-against-them mentality, and tend
toward the iconoclastic (Perot, Ventura, etc.), it doesn't take much
conspiracy babble from true believers to make longshot campaigns look
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
On Nov. 1, Chris Matthews interviewed Ralph Nader for an hour on CNBC,
and it was terrific. Trying to nail down the notoriously pessimistic
candidate's views on American-style capitalism and democracy, the
caffeinated Hardball anchor (and ex-Nader employee)asked him several
questions I've never heard at a dozen press conferences, such as what
should be the highest marginal tax rate (the current 39% is fine, Nader
said, as long as we tax stock transactions), who his heroes were (Thomas
Jefferson, Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln and F.D.R. made the list), and
whether he truly believes - as most liberals decidedly do not - that Bill
Clinton should have been impeached (he does).
Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln and F.D.R. made the list), and
whether he truly believes - as most liberals decidedly do not - that Bill
Clinton should have been impeached (he does).
is nuts-and-bolts policy and beliefs stuff, discussed with an experienced
and knowledgeable campaign reporter. The typical (and daily) Nader
campaign press conference, in sharp contrast, has been covered by the
political reporter from the local daily, a couple of local TV news crews,
an alt weekly type, maybe a local AP reporter, and then a bunch of student
rabble who ask eight-part questions referencing Marshall McLuhan and
Cornel West. (Nader, in fact, has taken to beginning each conference with
a request that "only members of the media ask questions").
|The typical Nader campaign press
conference, in sharp contrast, has been covered by the
political reporter from the local daily, a couple of local TV
news crews, an alt weekly type, maybe a local AP reporter, and
then a bunch of student rabble who ask eight-part questions
referencing Marshall McLuhan and Cornel West. |
Because the interrogators change from city to city, 90% of the
questions cover the same ground, day after day. Since there usually aren't
reporters conversant in the minutiae of legislation, you never get the
kind of follow-up that Matthews offered Wednesday, when he challenged
Nader - and Nader's supporters - on the candidate's pro-labor plank of
repealing the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Since none of the thousands of
reporters who have covered Nader's four decades of consumer activities in
Washington D.C. have been assigned to follow the campaign, any significant
personality changes or hypocritical statements go unobserved (and that
whole "ego trip" line of argument remains at the level of accusation).
This is not to say there hasn't been good journalism about the campaign
- the local newspaper coverage has been pretty good, sometimes excellent
(Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle - my favorite "second-tier"
newspaper in the country - wrote an especially terrific account Oct. 20).
The alt weeklies have run interesting pro-con "Citizen Ralph" cover
packages, and the local TV news broadcasts have been better than you'd
imagine. And many of the elite-media parachute-drops, from a Harper's love letter to a New Republic poison
dart, have been elucidating. Carla Marinucci of the San Francisco
Chronicle has done a great job detailing the pissing matches on the Left.
But, dang, I sure would have liked to have seen The New York Times
grill Nader about his tough words on Israel, or an Economist reporter wrestle
with him about the morality of foreign trade, or David Halberstam write
about what it was like being Ralph's childhood
buddy (a fact the Pulitzer Prize-winner, incidentally, neglected to
mention in his "Citizen Nader" chapter in The Reckoning). Maybe those New Times people could
have pooled up all those double-digit profit margins and sent a group
reporter out there to see whether his campaign was just the last gasp of
the "ancient left" they so love to mock. The Village Voice chain could
have investigated whether their treasured Seattle Coalition was indeed
becoming a growing and vibrant political movement. Reason magazine could have
asked Nader about his supporters in the Maoist
Internationalist Movement waving around signs that say "capitalism
sucks." The National
Journal folks could have split the hairs on his legislative proposals,
or better yet, just give Dave Barry a gazillion dollars to write whatever he wants.
And on and on.
There are more working reporters in this country than anywhere else in
the world, by far. Unlike in most of the rest of the world, journalism is
a very good business here. Why can't anyone afford to cover the man, and
the movement, that may tip an important U.S. presidential election?
The Democracy will survive, obviously. And we shouldn't feel too sorry
for voting-age Internet users; they know by now how to look for whatever
third-party information they want. Anywhere but the Los Angeles Times.
the mainstream media do Nader justice? Tell us what you think.