The pain the establishment media felt over Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader’s challenge to the two-party system was evident in CBS’s election night coverage. When reporter Ed Bradley commented that Ralph Nader might approach the five percent threshold for receiving federal matching funds, Dan Rather interrupted: “About $12 million, $13 million of your money and mine.” As Bradley pointed out that Nader was “hurting” Al Gore in several states, Rather added: “And every taxpayer.”
After a prolonged period of media indifference, Nader’s campaign began to receive sustained media attention in the final weeks of the campaign season. Once it became clear that Nader’s candidacy might actually make a difference in the election, the media discovered the Green campaign was the “electoral shadow stalking the Gore campaign.” (ABC World News Tonight, 10/23/00)
It was hard to miss the prominent voices in the media that were questioning everything from Nader’s “intellectual honesty” (Newsweek, 11/6/00) to his right to run at all. The New York Times (10/26/00) editorialized that America “deserves a clear up-or-down vote between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore, who have waged a hard, substantive and clean campaign.” Bill Press, Crossfire’s voice “from the left” wondered, “What could be scarier, movie fans, than Freddie Krueger meets The Blair Witch 2 in The House on the Haunted Hill? Two words: Ralph Nader.” (10/31/00)
Prior to the realization that Nader was anything more than a novelty factor in the election, the Green campaign had mostly been of interest to mainstream journalists not for the ideas or new voters that it might bring 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.
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.” Serious consideration of the Green Party platform was, of course, nowhere to be found.
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 became overtly hostile when it 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 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.” And Hearst Newspaper columnist Marianne Means spoke for many pundits when she wrote: “The two-party system works fine, if not perfectly. Why can’t we leave it at that?” (Denver Post, 7/16/00).
Some reporters were ready to offer practical campaign advice to Nader, which sometimes seemed to suggest that Green ideas might simply not lend themselves to proper campaigning. A Reuters report (7/12/00) warned that the Nader camp “may have trouble packing Nader into 30-second television commercials,” since his “interests are almost as diverse as his positions, which range from opposition to the World Trade Organization to support for a large increase in the minimum wage.”
Nonetheless, the campaign moved along. When tens of thousands paid to attend enthusiastic Green Party “super rallies” for Nader around the country, USA Today (10/24/00) marginalized them as being “centered in college towns bristling with youthful enthusiasm and aging leftist dogma,” with Nader’s rhetoric sounding like “what rang through the early 1900s Socialist halls in New York.” The New York Times, like some other media outlets, focused on the personal appearances of Nader supporters, reporting that the Madison Square Garden event was “less a political happening than a body piercing convention, with earrings sprouting from noses, eyebrows, tongues, lips and sometimes even ears.” (10/2/00)
At times, the media appeared almost desperate to explain away what was happening. Reporters struggled to explain how the system could allow Nader’s campaign to happen. “Nader defies Democrats,” blared a USA Today headline (10/30/00), while a subhead at Time’s website asked: “Can Gore Appeal to Nader Voters’ Sensible Side?” Nader “doesn’t give a crap if he spoils the election for one of the main combatants,” complained the author, Frank Pellegrini. (10/24/00)
In a November 3 editorial, the New York Times wrote that “it is past time for everyone, including Mr. Gore, to get tougher on Mr. Nader.” It would be hard to be tougher than the paper’s own columnist, Thomas Friedman, who urged that Nader be named ambassador to North Korea: “Ralph can spend his days with another egomaniacal narcissist, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, and get a real taste of what a country that actually follows Mr. Nader’s insane economic philosophy–high protectionism, economic autarky, anti-markets, anti-globalization, anti-multinationals–is like for the people who live there.” (11/10/00)
Friedman’s analysis was absurd, but the point was crystal clear: If a candidate suggests that the major parties are too close on major issues, he or she will be pilloried in the press for exaggerating the facts. But when it comes to discrediting a candidate who campaigns from outside the two-party consensus, no hyperbole is too great and no attack is too shrill. The media’s point could not be clearer on this: the two-party system is not to be challenged, especially when it might challenge the media’s conventional wisdom on fundamental questions regarding trade, the economy, or foreign policy.
After the election, and throughout the controversy over the election results in Florida, reporters returned to examine what damage the Green Party candidate had done to the Democrats. One scenario had Green Congressional candidates costing Democrats three House races. This was reported as fact in the New York Times and Washington Post (12/27/00), despite the fact that one of the congressional districts in question was traditionally a Republican stronghold, and the previous Democratic victory had been considered somewhat surprising to begin with.
Some reporters expanded the discussion slightly. A December 10 New York Times piece warned about the hazards of assigning blame to third-party candidates. David Leonhardt, borrowing an idea originally published in The Nation, argued that Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan could be seen as the “difference” in a few states as well. Factoring out Buchanan’s votes or giving them to Bush, as was done endlessly with Nader and Gore, one could argue that Buchanan may have “cost” Bush four states. As Leonhardt points out, “picking a spoiler turns out to be as complicated as counting votes.” Most media opted for the simpler approach. “Nader Remains Unrepentant” (Daily News, 11/8/00) captured the most prevalent media frame immediately following the election, as many reporters portrayed Nader and his Green Party supporters as “defiant.” The Washington Post’s Michael Powell was slightly more colorful: “The Green Party is the bedbug that laid low the giant. A ragamuffin collection of anti-globalists, campaign finance aficionados, and health care and labor activists.” (12/27/00)
Some even cast their sights on alternative media as a possible culprit. Tampa community radio station WMNF found itself in the eye of the electoral storm in Florida, and some looked to the station’s progressive politics for blame. Some went so far as to suggest that future state funding might need to be re-evaluated (St. Petersburg Times, 11/10/00).
It is disheartening to see some argue that independent media may have been to blame for exposing citizens to perspectives that are excluded from the mainstream media discussion. One might argue that, upon final analysis, mainstream media have some explaining to do.
Corporate media resistance to sustained coverage of substantive issues through free air time to electoral candidates; their collaboration with Democrats and Republicans to exclude Nader from the presidential debates; and corporate media support for their own parent corporations who are in fact targets of many of the reforms proposed by Green candidates might just have something to do with the often abysmal state of political reporting in the United States.
Peter Hart is a media analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Earlier versions of the material in this article appeared in the January/February 2001 issue of Extra!