My first day as a campaign correspondent started just a few miles from my apartment. Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate polling near five percent nationwide and even higher on the more liberal West Coast, was taping an interview with BET's Tavis Smiley at the CNN building on Sunset Blvd.
It was mid-September, after the traditional Labor Day cut-off that is supposed to signify the beginning of voter interest in presidential politics. Al Gore and George W. Bush were running a tight race, and Nader was coming off a remarkable event in Portland, Ore., three weeks earlier where he sold 10,500 tickets at $7 a head - the biggest rally thus far by any candidate in the 2000 campaign.
I expected to be competing for Green Room-space with a dozen or so reporters from the Los Angeles Times, Daily News, local broadcast outlets, alternative weeklies and the entertainment press ... in addition to all the national media - The New York Times, CNBC, National Public Radio - that have been telling me about every whisper and feint of this eternal election cycle since early 1999.
It was just me and Jamie Foxx's small crew, until the comic finished his interview and left, then Nader shambled into the tiny 12th-floor room and started wolfing down the free pastries. 'Boy, this stuff's really good!' he said.
An hour later Nader held a press conference at a small Green Party office across the street from the Hustler building and not far from the West Coast headquarters of Inside.com.
Six reporters. Maybe.
Five weeks later, every newspaper worth its salt suddenly began running front-page analysis pieces about how Nader might deliver the election to Bush, and was at the very least forcing Gore to campaign in states like Washington that had voted for Dukakis, for crying out loud. The L.A. Daily News' banner headline of Oct. 25, at about 120-point, was: 'Nader, the spoiler?' White House correspondents began pestering the bony Green with questions they might have considered back when he declared his candidacy in February, like, 'So it doesn't bother you to be taking away votes from Al Gore?'
So consumers of the nation's leading media get approximately three weeks worth of discussion about the man who may decide the election. Since nobody important (not even the Associated Press) has followed Nader full-time up to this point, 95% of the questioning and coverage is about his role in the national horse race, and whether he (as The New York Times editorial board has suggested, twice) ought to do the democracy a big favor and step down. Nader's day-to-day yarns ('the Social Security 'crisis' is a phony problem invented by George W. Bush to make his Wall Street buddies even more rich,' 'People get 90% of their news about elections now from television') have gone almost completely unexamined in eight months of campaigning across all 50 states.
More importantly, voters trying to weigh the merits of his proposals and philosophy - radical, conventional or otherwise - have not been able to find that information in the media they are supposed to trust. How many people, as a result, realize that Ralph would like to double the minimum wage, subsidize all public college tuition, tax every single stock transaction, pay reparations for slavery, block hi-tech visas, charge broadcast companies 'billions of dollars in rent,' pull U.S. troops home from Europe and Southeast Asia, and unilaterally withdraw from all world trade agreements?
You don't have to be Norman Solomon or one of those cute little anarchist smurfs to judge the lack of Nader coverage to be a head-scratching failure. And, as we have seen from Kosovo to Linux culture, traditional media's failure is new media's opportunity. This is a cheering notion to upstart Web sites trying to make a name for themselves, but depressing to those of us who crave a dependable national media.
That is, until that national media begins trying to defend itself.
'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,' L.A. Times political researcher Maffie Ritsch recently told my colleague Jennifer Bleyer at NewsForChange.com.
'There's really a tough judgment call here,' said L.A. Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus, a member of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, on CNN's Reliable Sources Oct. 29. 'Are you going to go out and spend a lot of time covering someone whose own supporters will admit he really doesn't have a chance of winning this thing, whose target is five percent? I think most of us use a rule of thumb, whether this is right or wrong, that well, at 10 percent we'd better start taking you seriously. At 15 percent we're looking at a real phenomenon.'
Arriving at a formula for third-party coverage is tricky, let's not pretend otherwise. If I was running CNN or the Washington Post I'd probably set the bar at being ballot-qualified in at least 40 states and drawing 1 percent in the polls. That is, to assign a reporter. Coverage would depend on the usual cocktail of polls, 'newsworthiness,' and the vigor of the reporter.
But the first step would be to rid the newsroom, once and for all, of that haughty tone of propriety when discussing campaign coverage. News organizations with national pretensions - and the staff size to back them up - should not be asking themselves what extraodrinary circumstances justify third-party coverage, they should be asking themselves how they can best serve an audience deciding for whom to vote.
By that definition, I have a difficult time figuring out how you could decide not to cover a well-known candidate whose national support is larger than the poll difference between the front-runners, who is threatening to affect the outcomes in up to 10 key swing states, who has been packing arenas and auditoriums from coast to coast with paying voters, and is outpolling Pat Buchanan 5-1 with half the money.
Yet, even though the news-thin Democrat and Republican conventions drew 15,000 political reporters, even though Fox News and CNBC have been running non-stop election coverage seemingly ever since that impeachment business fizzled out, there wasn't a single reporter - not one, at least that I could see - assigned full-time to the Nader campaign a month before Election Day. The Associated Press? Maybe a local bureau reporter. Reuters? Forget about it. Even when Nader sold out Madison Square Garden Oct. 13, The New York Times - still the closest thing we have to a national paper of record - ran a 400-word AP story the next day.
According to a study Nader is complaining about, nightly network news programs ran 211 stories featuring Gore between Labor Day and mid-October, 214 with Bush ... and just 4 about Ralph. 'That is less than one percent of the stories, despite the fact that my national poll numbers have been between four and eight percent,' he said, with his typical numeric optimism.
During my first two days on the campaign, Nader made an awkward appearance on the Tonight Show in Burbank, threw a rally in front of nearly 1,000 students at Long Beach State University, shook down limousine liberals in Brentwood at ex-Viacom CEO Frank Biondi's mansion, and held a press conference where he charged that the Bridgestone/Firestone deaths were the 'direct result Clinton-Gore de facto deregulation policies.' There were less than eight weeks before the election, and the L.A. Times did not write a single word about any of it.
The L.A. Times has 1,100 editorial employees. Their bureau in Washington D.C. - where Nader has his headquarters - is larger than the newsrooms of many newspapers. What is it that all these people do?
OPPORTUNITIES, LOST & FOUND
NewsForChange.com, by comparison, has two editorial employees. The site, launched this spring by the progessive do-gooder long-distance telephone company Working Assets, decided spontaneously this August to tail Nader full-time until Election Day, using reporters in different parts of the country. I had been writing political columns for the site, and took over the Western part of Nader's schedule.
Working Assets hardly has the same motivation as a traditional news organization - its San Francisco office includes a 'political department,' after all - but the company figured that honest, original scrutiny of an otherwise ignored left-bent presidential run would be a good thing, and a nice way to boost traffic.
And it's worked: Yahoo! Full Coverage has picked up several of the stories, lefty sites like Tompaine.com, Alternet.org, Commondreams.org, and Bostonphoenix.com have published or linked to a bunch of the coverage, some daily newspapers have run reprints, and news organizations from Salon to Reuters have followed up on some of the reporting. On a good day of Yahoo! links, NewsForChange's traffic has increased five- and six-fold.
A good look through sites posting Nader coverage will illustrate that these are hardly rooting sections for Ralph. If anything, they reflect the increasingly hysterical debate among progressives about whether 'a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush,' or if 'the perfect is the enemy of the good.' At any rate, it's been a pretty cheap way for all of them to serve their readers and build traffic.
The bigger question is this: Given that at least one out of 20 voters - and surely a larger proportion of Internet users - are seriously thinking about voting for Ralph Nader in a skin-tight election, why on earth have these people been forced to read marginalized Web sites to inform their choice?
An important clue can be found in the straight press' response to this criticism. Instead of discussing how best to serve their readers, editors act like knights of a secret order, in charge of protecting the gravitas of political discourse.
'We're not a public utility,' Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Jackson Diehl told former Post ombudsman E.R. Shipp in early September. '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.'
By treating coverage as some kind of expensive and dangerous gift to be doled out with grave care, rather than as a responsibility to be weighed against available resources, editors and producers unwittingly confirm the pessimistic (and I think incorrect) view among some liberals that the half-dozen major media companies control the universe.
'It's in the hands of the mass media whether we're gonna break through or not,' Nader 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 [Washington] Post, The [New York] Times, and the [Wall Street] Journal.'
Some go further and suggest that Nader is being blacked out because of his politics and anti-media critiques - a concept that surely 98% of campaign reporters would find ridiculous.
'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,' said Ben Bagdikian, author of 'The Media Monopoly', as quoted in Bleyer's article.
Nader's Seattle Coalition supporters are only too happy to agree.
'Take a look around the room, and notice who's missing here,' a Long Beach State student declared at a Nader rally. '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!'
These kind of ill-researched barkings (and their collorary - that the masses are sheep manipulated by an all-powerful media oligopoly), reinforce, I believe, the major media's sense of self-importance, which in turn makes editors more likely to look down their noses at campaigns and candidates judged insufficiently 'serious.' And since Third Party candidates by definition have an us-against-them mentality, and tend toward the iconoclastic (Perot, Ventura, etc.), it doesn't take much conspiracy babble from true believers to make longshot campaigns look frivolous.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
On Nov. 1, Chris Matthews interviewed Ralph Nader for an hour on CNBC, and it was terrific. Trying to nail down the notoriously pessimistic candidate's views on American-style capitalism and democracy, the caffeinated Hardball anchor (and ex-Nader employee)asked him several questions I've never heard at a dozen press conferences, such as what should be the highest marginal tax rate (the current 39% is fine, Nader said, as long as we tax stock transactions), who his heroes were (Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln and F.D.R. made the list), and whether he truly believes - as most liberals decidedly do not - that Bill Clinton should have been impeached (he does).
This is nuts-and-bolts policy and beliefs stuff, discussed with an experienced and knowledgeable campaign reporter. The typical (and daily) Nader campaign press conference, in sharp contrast, has been covered by the political reporter from the local daily, a couple of local TV news crews, an alt weekly type, maybe a local AP reporter, and then a bunch of student rabble who ask eight-part questions referencing Marshall McLuhan and Cornel West. (Nader, in fact, has taken to beginning each conference with a request that 'only members of the media ask questions').
Because the interrogators change from city to city, 90% of the questions cover the same ground, day after day. Since there usually aren't reporters conversant in the minutiae of legislation, you never get the kind of follow-up that Matthews offered Wednesday, when he challenged Nader - and Nader's supporters - on the candidate's pro-labor plank of repealing the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Since none of the thousands of reporters who have covered Nader's four decades of consumer activities in Washington D.C. have been assigned to follow the campaign, any significant personality changes or hypocritical statements go unobserved (and that whole 'ego trip' line of argument remains at the level of accusation).
This is not to say there hasn't been good journalism about the campaign - the local newspaper coverage has been pretty good, sometimes excellent (Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle - my favorite 'second-tier' newspaper in the country - wrote an especially terrific account Oct. 20). The alt weeklies have run interesting pro-con 'Citizen Ralph' cover packages, and the local TV news broadcasts have been better than you'd imagine. And many of the elite-media parachute-drops, from a Harper's love letter to a New Republic poison dart, have been elucidating. Carla Marinucci of the San Francisco Chronicle has done a great job detailing the pissing matches on the Left.
But, dang, I sure would have liked to have seen The New York Times grill Nader about his tough words on Israel, or an Economist reporter wrestle with him about the morality of foreign trade, or David Halberstam write about what it was like being Ralph's childhood buddy (a fact the Pulitzer Prize-winner, incidentally, neglected to mention in his 'Citizen Nader' chapter in The Reckoning). Maybe those New Times people could have pooled up all those double-digit profit margins and sent a group reporter out there to see whether his campaign was just the last gasp of the 'ancient left' they so love to mock. The Village Voice chain could have investigated whether their treasured Seattle Coalition was indeed becoming a growing and vibrant political movement. Reason magazine could have asked Nader about his supporters in the Maoist Internationalist Movement waving around signs that say 'capitalism sucks.' The National Journal folks could have split the hairs on his legislative proposals, or better yet, just give Dave Barry a gazillion dollars to write whatever he wants. And on and on.
There are more working reporters in this country than anywhere else in the world, by far. Unlike in most of the rest of the world, journalism is a very good business here. Why can't anyone afford to cover the man, and the movement, that may tip an important U.S. presidential election?
The Democracy will survive, obviously. And we shouldn't feel too sorry for voting-age Internet users; they know by now how to look for whatever third-party information they want. Anywhere but the Los Angeles Times.