Nader's Flip-Flop Media Plan

9.19.00 | LOS ANGELES -- The press conference had just ended, local TV news cameramen were packing down. Ralph Nader walked two feet from the podium to chat with the five reporters assembled.

"So now the big question. The big question of the day!" Nader said in the amplified stage voice the Green Party presidential candidate employs when delivering a campaign punchline. Then he motioned to one of the cameras. "Did you turn it off?" he asked. "Good."

"The big question of the day! Did you get your soundbites?!!"

The reporters laughed, and said they had.

"Did you really? I'm serious, I'm not kidding," he said. "I'm telling you, if you don't do soundbites, you can have the best press conference in the country and it doesn't work."

Then he turned to CNN reporter Anne McDermott -- a self-confident type who had monopolized much of the conference with questions like "so why are you running?" -- and said, deferentially: "I'm asking an authority."

"Yes, yes," she assured him.

"Thank you all very much for coming out on such short notice," he said.

Twenty-four hours later, at Long Beach State University, Nader blasted CNN and other "oligarchic media conglomerates" for being afraid of covering his campaign.

"For example, yesterday I had a press conference on corporate crime, great detail, a very important issue that I can elaborate on, and there's virtually no press. I wonder why!" he said sarcastically, to 700 sympathetic students and faculty who could not have known that the press conference had been nearly unpublicized. "Because there are six or seven giant media conglomerates who control most of the audiences, and the newspaper and magazine circulation. ... You think they want to report on corporate crime, fraud and abuse?"

Nader, trying to claw his way up out of the single digits and into the presidential debates, is playing good cop-bad cop with the media, praising their investigative reporting in one moment, condemning their corporate servility and editorial judgment in the next. In the process, he is fostering a near-conspiratorial view of how the media business works, and is spelling out a series of bold media-policy objectives such as demanding "billions of dollars" of spectrum fees from broadcast companies.

The "corporate crime" press conference, for example, began with Nader holding up a blown-up cover of a recent issue of Business Week on "Corporate Power."

"I just wanted to note that a lot of the points I'm going to make this afternoon have been documented in the mainstream press, for years," he said. The problem, Nader argued, is that investigative reports of corporate abuses are published but "go nowhere. Reporters work two to three months, get the story on Page One and nothing happens."

Why? See Nader's favorite stump-speech soundbite: "Because the two political parties have morphed into one corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup, beholden to the same corporate interests." Or this one: "Because the corporate criminals own the federal cops."

There is a disconnect, Nader argues, between the investigative wing of news organizations and their political reporters.

"I can guarantee you that Al Gore and Geroge W. Bush can campaign around this country for the next 500 years, and they will never be asked by a reporter, or a commentator, what is your position on corporate crime. Even though their own newspapers, their own fellow reporters, their own investigative task forces, have documented it again and again."

A reading of recent Los Angeles Times editions seems to bear Nader's theory out: Monday, on the front page and again on page one of the business section, the Times printed long articles about how motor vehicle safety standards have been virtually unchanged for 30 years -- the exact subject of Nader's Sept. 12 press conference which the Times did not cover, nor even mention in a Sept. 15 article about corporate influence on tire safety regulations. In fact, L.A.'s dominant newspaper did not so much as mention that the Green Party presidential candidate was in southern California for two days last week.

At press conferences, Nader will explain in methodical detail why his candidacy satisfies what he calls "the criteria of newsworthiness taught at any journalism school."

"Now what is the newsworthiness criteria?" he asked at one such event last week. "One is, can I affect the election outcome? Well they all say I can. They say 'Well, he's taking votes away from Gore,' so that's newsworthy (number) one. The second newsworthy is, do we have large audiences? Are peple coming out? And the answer is yes -- newsworthy (number) two," Nader said.

"Newsworthy (number) three: Do we have a record of achievement, or is it just a lot of hot air, like some of these politicians; have we been tested, have we challenged concentrated power? Have we resisted temptation, do we mean what we say, and not just say what we mean? Yes, the record is clear.

"Fourth, do we have a significant agenda of issues -- like (challenging) corporate crime ... getting rid of corporate welfare, public funding of campaigns, universal health insurance, strong labor union laws -- that the other candidates aren't talking about? Yes, we do.

"So there you have it: Four criteria for newsworthiness, and still the bias against third party candidates reigns supreme in the national press," Nader concluded.

Nader's supporters tend to explain such neglect as part of a conspiracy to blot out third-party truth-tellers, and the candidate himself says and does nothing to make them think otherwise.

"Take a look around the room, and notice who's missing here," a Long Beach State student declared, defiantly. "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!"

At the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, one questioner surmised that the lack of coverage is "because the media is so tightly controlled by those same corporations that are funneling all the funds into Bush and Gore's [campaigns]."

"Exactly," Nader replied. "I can say also that they probably don't like the candidate that wants to make them pay rent."

To reporters, Nader will go out of his way to praise specific investigative packages, such as Time Magazine's issue on corporate welfare last year. To supporters, Nader will characterize such coverage as aberrational and even profit-driven.

"I mean, once in a while they do a good investigative report -- you gotta keep your ratings up during ratings period," he said in Long Beach. "Bottom line: Nobody [covers me]. You know why? Because my diagnosis is so grim."

The "diagnosis" speaks volumes about Nader's attitude toward both news companies, and their consumers: "These are oligarchic media conglomerates, and they're so powerful you just can't do anything about it."

This is one of the reasons Nader is scratching so hard (and ineffectively, to date) to get into the debates, and also why he's waving rubber chickens around in front of Jay Leno: television rules politics. "People get 90 percent of their news about elections now from television," he told UNLV students, stretching the boundaries of credulity.

"It's in the hands of the mass media whether we're gonna break through or not," he 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 Post, the Times, and the Journal."

Given his almost awestruck belief in the power of the media, it is not surprising that Nader calls for the creation of vaguely defined public media, especially during "prime-time drive-time" hours, paid for by the massive fees collected from broadcast companies.

"We don't have a citizen action channel [from which] we can get excited and learn from each other, and so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel. No labor channel, no consumer channel ... it's ridiculous, isn't it?" he said. "We should have our own radio and TV stations and our own cable channels, because we (the public) own the airwaves, and we don't get anything in return for them. ... We're the worst negotiators. We give away our natural resources."

At the same time, Nader's coverage would certainly be more widespread if his campaign had better media coordination. In just three days last week, Nader held a press conference and conducted a television interview in Los Angeles not mentioned in any press materials; invited reporters to a 10:30 press conference in Oakland that didn't actually begin until noon; and changed the location of a long-planned news conference in Silicon Valley on the day it was held, because of "noise considerations."

In the meantime, Nader will begrudgingly take his act on whatever comedy show will take him. "Can you believe that it's come down to this?" he mumbled to supporters at a Brentwood fundraiser last week.

"That's what we're down to in this country," he said at UNLV. "You see, when politics becomes entertainment, politics is entertainment. So we have to change that."

But in the very next breath, Nader can switch toward the type of enthusiasm, good humor and willingness to sound-bite that have surprised many who have watched him in this campaign.

"I wanna be on Letterman!" he declared, to enthusiastic applause. "I can give him a Top 10!"

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