Oct
01
2000

Nader and the Press: Condescension Turns Nasty

Ralph Nader's presidential campaign has mostly been of interest to mainstream journalists not for the ideas or new voters that it brings to the election, but for the impact it might have on Democrat Al Gore's electoral chances. The headline "Nader's Bid Complicates Gore's Task" (Washington Post, 5/25/00) sums up this approach.

Even this role for Nader--often referred to as a "spoiler," or as "stealing" votes--was sometimes downplayed by media figures. After George Stephanopoulos suggested on ABC's This Week (6/25/00) that Nader might be polling near the 5 percent mark in several key states, fellow panelist Cokie Roberts responded with, "So far he's not getting that, though." In fact, Nader was polling between 7 and 10 percent in states like Washington and Oregon, which Stephanopoulos cited, and was getting around 5 percent in national polls (Washington Post, 5/25/00).

Likewise, Washington Post assistant managing editor Jackson Diehl responded to Post ombudsman E.R. Shipp's questions about why Nader (and Reform candidate Patrick Buchanan) were getting so little coverage (9/3/00): "We're not a public utility. 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." Half a percent is actually about one-tenth as much support as Nader has generally gotten in national polls.

In keeping with this dismissive approach, journalists often saw the Nader campaign as a chance to demonstrate their wit. The San Francisco Chronicle (6/23/00) reported that Nader "looks like he favors strained spinach and wheat germ." Time magazine (7/3/00) suggested that Nader may be an imperfect candidate for the Greens, given that "he's more into fighting tort reform than promoting tofu."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank (9/5/00) caricatured Nader as someone whose "only enemy is the corporation," and the Greens as "radical activists in sandals." "The Nader campaign is based on a simple premise: There is no difference between the two major parties," Milbank wrote. "This is true if you stand far enough away from the two parties--in the same way New York and Tokyo would look similar if you were standing on the moon."

But the media's patronizing tone could quickly turn hostile when media outlets felt that Nader was interfering with the sacred two-party system. A New York Times editorial (6/30/00) called Nader's run "a self-indulgent exercise that that will distract voters from the clear-cut choice represented by the major party candidates," adding that "the public deserves to see the major-party candidates compete on an uncluttered playing field."

Several of the Times' regular columnists echoed this editorial stance, with liberal Anthony Lewis (7/8/00) taking Nader to task for his opposition to deregulated trade: "Protectionism would destroy our prosperity and make the world's poor even more miserable. It is a strange platform for the Ralph Nader who says he speaks for the weak and the neglected."

Paul Krugman, the op-ed page's house economist, saw Nader's anti-corporate politics as a sign of a warped psyche (7/23/00): "Many of those who are thinking about voting for Mr. Nader probably imagine that he is still the moderate, humane activist of the 1960s." In fact, according to Krugman, he's now "a rebel without a life," consumed by "a general hostility toward corporations."

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times' other free-trade cheerleader, had earlier lumped Nader in with Buchanan (4/21/00) as politicians who "prefer a Cold War-like world of walls."

"Liberal" columnist Lars-Erik Nelson (New York Daily News, 7/2/00) castigated Nader: "Any presidential candidate whose running mate is Winona LaDuke, an Ojibway Indian activist from a Minnesota reservation, must be considered both marginal and self-indulgent." Nelson did not specify from which ethnic groups a serious candidate could pick a running mate.

The further one goes down the media food chain, the more vicious the ad hominem attacks become. "Like an enormous zit on prom night, when least expected or desired, Nader and his Green Party followers have reappeared on the political scene," wrote talkshow host and syndicated columnist Ken Hamblin (Denver Post, 7/2/00).

"One of the saddest sights in politics is a fading public figure who refuses to concede that his or her time has passed," Hearst columnist Marianne Means asserted (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 2/29/00). "The latest egotist to ignore reality is Ralph Nader, the aging consumer advocate whose crusades stalled and popularity sagged long ago.... Nader is in the great tradition of political diehards who stubbornly hope against hope that they can keep the reporters and speaking fees coming despite all the derisive laughter."

Means spoke for many pundits with the conclusion of a later anti-Nader column (Denver Post, 7/16/00): "The two-party system works fine, if not perfectly. Why can't we leave it at that?"