by Ralph Nader
Published in the February 2001 issue of Brill's Content
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 government -- it 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 ) 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 expos