Was Nader "Blacked Out" by the Media?
After months of virtual invisibility in the popular press, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader became a huge story in recent weeks as the national media noticed his modestly successful Third Party campaign could threaten Democrat Al Gore's chances in a tight election.
Yet for months, as his late-summer and early-fall barnstorming appearances drew thousands of enthusiastic supporters across the country, he earned only light, infrequent coverage in the mainstream press. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, ABC, CBS and NBC combined had given Nader only one minute of speaking time on their network evening news from Labor Day to Oct. 22, compared with 23 minutes for Gore and 22 for Republican George W. Bush, and the Washington Post relegated their one major feature on him to the style section.
Nader has called the coverage of his campaign a "media blackout," dramatic words that suggest a boardroom full of media executives rubbing their palms together, gleefully plotting his electoral demise. Yet several prominent media critics and some of the journalists who have covered him agree Nader is the subject of a news blackout, disagreeing only on the reasons for it.
By conventional journalistic standards of newsworthiness, they said, Nader doesn't deserve extensive coverage because he has very little chance of winning - a bind all Third Party candidates face in a winner-take-all electoral system.
"I guess he has encountered what all Third Party candidates encounter, which is this Catch-22, being that they're not considered significant candidates until they get coverage, and they won't become significant unless they get coverage," said Maffie Ritsch, a researcher at the Los Angeles Times national political desk, who has covered Third Parties for the paper.
"I don't know whose responsibility it is to break that. Is it the candidate's, who has to be charismatic and speak to issues that pique voters' interest? Or is it newspapers and TV and radio who need to initially cover everyone in the field and then evaluate everyone in the campaign who merits (further) coverage."
Jeff Cohen, founder of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), has been analyzing media coverage of the presidential race and was astonished at his own research suggesting Gore garnered at least thirty major stories for every one on Nader.
"Gore certainly doesn't have thirty times the support that Nader has. The fact is, if [Nader] had ever gotten anything close to the percentage of coverage as his percentage in the polls, his polls numbers would be up," said Cohen. Support for Nader, who has been famous for more than three decades as a consumer rights crusader, has hovered around 5 percent in national polls for several months. Gore's has fluctuated around the 40-45 percent mark.
"I'm not naive, but this has shocked me -- that a figure this famous and respected should get this little coverage," said Cohen.
Tom Squitieri, a national political correspondent for USA Today, said he's "had enormous difficulty getting minor party coverage into the paper," and that the media has been very slow to realize that Nader's 2000 campaign - unlike his flaccid 1996 run -- is not just a token candidacy.
"Reporters did not recognize the very unique potential between the marriage of Nader, who had national recognition, and the Green Party and its loose association of community-based activism groups. He's unlike any other candidate in the sense that he has national renown and has a track record as a reformer," said Squitieri. "Nader is talking about issues that the other candidates don't bring up, and those issues really resonate with a lot of voters."
"Let's be clear, every utterance by every candidate does not deserve a full story, but some do," he said. "Nader is different, he has a consumer record unmatched by any member of congress, and if he had that record and been a member of congress, he would've gotten covered."
FAIR's Cohen says he repeatedly nagged the New York Times to merely list Nader's campaign stops with those of the other candidates. But New York Times press spokeswoman Kathy Park defended her paper's coverage of Nader, describing it as "voluminous."
"We've written a series of news stories about his campaign, large and small, on the front page and on our inside pages, that have explored his positions, the views of his backers, the speeches he gives, his attacks on the two major party candidates, the crowds that attend his rallies, and many other things," Park said.
Nader has asserted, and some analysts have agreed, that the increasing corporate conglomeration of the media makes predictable its exclusion of Nader, whose campaign speeches -- and career -- are grounded in savage attacks on the behavior of corporations.
"The government has allowed concentration in media that would have been unlawful a decade ago -- concentration that seriously erodes our national commitment to a 'free press,'" Nader said in a recent statement. "Our democracy is being swamped by the confluence of money, politics and concentrated media."
Ben Bagdikian, author of "The Media Monopoly" and former head of the University of California at Berkeley journalism school, agreed that there may be a media bias against Nader because of his anti-corporate stance.
"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," he said.
Most journalists react with irritation at any suggestion they are unduly influenced by their corporate employers. Responding to its ombudsman's questions about unsubstantial Nader coverage, the Washington Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news, Jackson Diehl, wrote on Sept. 3 that "we're not a public utility. We're a newspaper, and we cover things based on what is newsworthy."
But, said Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media ecology at New York University, "There are aspects of [Nader's] drive that are by any reasonable definition newsworthy.
"The fact that he has attracted the largest rallies of any candidate in this political year throughout the country would seem to merit some press attention," Miller said. "Similarly, the fact that he was actually threatened with arrest when he showed up at the first (presidential) debate (in Boston) is really remarkable for a democracy. You would therefore think that a genuinely disinterested press would look into the matter. But the fact that they haven't is further evidence that they're not disinterested. The press is deeply implicated in the political status quo."
Robert McChesney, author of "Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times," agreed that newsworthiness had little to do with the editorial decisions informing mainstream Nader coverage. Insisting that "nobody could possibly want to read these inane stories about Dick Cheney speaking to fifty Republican women in Iowa" more than reports of a 16,000-person Nader rally at Madison Square Garden featuring rock stars, celebrities and the campaign's largest showing of the coveted youth sector, McChesney argued that scant coverage of the latter event is further evidence of the media's complicity with an exclusive political system.
"The electoral community in the United States is a gated community to which only the following are invited: Republicans, Democrats and billionaires like (Reform Party founder) Ross Perot. Journalistic interest has nothing to do with it," he said.
Indeed, if Nader's newsworthiness is gauged only by his interference with this so-called gated community, coverage in the final weeks of the campaign has made the point. He has received a blitz of attention for siphoning votes from Democratic candidate Gore, suggesting he may be the subject of a media 'brownout' rather than a blackout -- he's getting coverage, but it's fixated on his effect on the 'real' race rather than his position on the issues.
Danny Schechter, who heads the left-leaning MediaChannel, a clearing-house for reporting and analysis on the media, said Nader has shot himself in the foot by dwelling too heavily on what he opposes rather than what he supports.
"The Nader camp has not defined a clear message," he said. "There's a whole laundry list of issues he's against, but it's not really clear what he's for."
But Schechter also indicted the mass media for creating an uphill battle for issues-based discourse. "Nader wants to politicize politics, he wants to deal with issues," he said. "But this is a campaign where despite attention paid to issues, it's not really about issues, it's about the two-party horse race."
And for Nader, "at this point in the game all of the coverage is about politics, not policy," said the L.A. Times' Ritsch,
"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," she said.
Nader said that since mid-October, "mass media interest in my candidacy has increased substantially, but only because the Democratic party has chosen to directly call me a spoiler. Almost all of the questions, and almost all of the coverage, is on the 'horse-race' aspect of the elections -- who is winning where; how will this or that tactic help this or that candidate. There is very little about agenda."
Park, of the N.Y. Times, said her paper had been careful to take Nader's campaign seriously, not focusing just on its 'spoiler' potential. "We have, indeed, run a couple of articles this week about the impact (Nader's) candidacy has on the Gore campaign, but that represents only a small portion of our coverage of his candidacy. Indeed, we have a reporter in Iowa today covering his latest campaign rally," she added, apparently referring to a campaign stop that took place the previous week.
Nader's assistant press secretary, Tom Adkins, complained that the N.Y. Times has not covered the Green campaign with much zeal, pointing, as an example, to the paper's use of an Associated Press story on the Madison Square Garden event that next morning, instead of one written by a Times reporter. "The Times and the Post set the tone for the coverage that the campaigns get across the coverage, and by blacking out Nader, they've essentially kept us out of minor papers coast to coast," said Adkins. "An interesting example is Alaska, where polls have shown us at 17 percent. Yet we have to fight to get coverage in the Alaskan papers despite the fact that it's essentially a three-way race."
Whether or not its news coverage has been fair, the Times editorial board has made no attempts to disguise its disgust with Nader's intrusion on the two-party race.
In a June 30 editorial, the Times called Nader's run "a self-indulgent exercise that will distract voters from the clear-cut choice represented by the major party candidates," and went on to say that "the public deserves to see the major-party candidates compete on an uncluttered playing field." In a caustic sequel published last Thursday, it called Nader's "willful prankishness ... a disservice to the electorate" and dismissed his candidacy as "ego run amok."
While the Times is careful to separate its editorials from its "straight" reporting, their effect on the tone of overall election coverage cannot, according to some, be underestimated.
"The June 30 editorial wasn't really written for readers, it was written for other newspapers," said McChesney. "Saying that America needs an 'uncluttered playing field' meant that (Americans) aren't smart enough to handle more than two parties. The ideological boundary stops at Gore and Lieberman, and the New York Times deserves special attention as their ideological commissars."
FAIR's Cohen agreed: "The New York Times is the most powerful force in U.S. media, no one denies that," he said. "Their goal is to prop up the two-party system, [and] they like politics to be conducted in a dignified and civil process controlled by the few. Their ideological somersaults on behalf of the debate commission [excluding Nader] were breathtaking to behold."
A frustrated Nader made his exclusion from the presidential debates organized by the bipartisan Committee on Presidential Debates a major component of his daily stump speech. He was turned away at the door of two of the debates by security guards backed by CPD officials even though he had the proper credentials to join the debate audience. "The reasons why (Minnesota Gov.) Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot achieved what they did (as Third Party candidates) is because they were in the debates, and I guess what we could have done is paid more attention to the people who run the debates," admitted the L.A. Times Ritsch.
"They wouldn't let him in the debates because of this fifteen percent rule, and it's their debates," said USA Today's Squitieri, referring to the debate commission, which was set up jointly by the Democratic and Republican parties and took over stewardship of the presidential debates from the neutral League of Women Voters. "They can set up the rules the way they want to. But the media doesn't have to abide by the blackout rule."
The television networks, as Nader supporters frequently point out, can host debates without the backing of the self-appointed debate commission and invite anybody they want, but they have chosen not to do so. Nader believes they have a clear incentive only to invite candidates with large campaign warchests, regardless of poll numbers.
"Political advertising has become an important source of revenue, especially for TV stations," said Nader, who claims network owners have consistently opposed campaign finance reform. "The media also has the ability to define who is a 'serious' candidate in most races. They use this power to their advantage: buying advertising has become the single most important criterion for being defined as a serious candidate."
Nader used Perot's 1992 presidential as a case study: "As soon as (Perot) announced his plans for massive campaign spending he was immediately treated as a serious candidate, and given free media exposure that most Third-Party candidates can only dream about, despite the fact that at the time he had no political party and relatively few Americans knew anything about him." Nader has predicted a torrent of harsh judgment by media critics after the election, and those already speaking out seem to agree.
"I think that the coverage of the entire race, [Nader] included, will be the subject of a great deal of devastating media criticism," said Crispin-Miller.
"I don't know if I can put this strongly enough, but this race is a national scandal," he continued. "The fact that George W. Bush has been treated as respectfully as he has when he is so patently limited and inexperienced is really mind-boggling. This is a case of the Emperor's new clothes, the likes of which I have never seen before, because this guy makes Ronald Reagan look like a Rhodes Scholar. Members of the press may be too deeply entrenched in the system even to recognize how perverted it has become."
McChesney lamented that the lights of serious journalistic scrutiny will turn on only after the voting booths have closed. "A good reporter will in the post-mortem ask why people were voting for Nader," he said, "but it will happen too little and too late."