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Nader Battles The Media

This column from The Weekly Standard was written by Matthew Continetti.

It's no exaggeration to say that Ralph Nader's independent candidacy for president faces many hurdles. Nader isn't on the ballot yet -- anywhere. He has little money, having only raised $175,000 during his campaign's exploratory phase and $250,000 since announcing his candidacy. And he has to convince many who supported him four years ago, when he was the Green party's candidate for president, that a vote for him in 2004 isn't a waste or, worse, essentially a half-vote for George W. Bush.

But chances are that Nader can clear most, if not all, of these hurdles. In 1980, John Anderson's independent candidacy was able to get on the ballot in all 50 states. Nader may be able to accomplish something similar. And Nader, who once told the New York Times that he "really [doesn't] deal with" the World Wide Web, now says he is intent on using the Internet to raise money quickly, a la Howard Dean. What's more, John Kerry's voting record, which includes "yes" votes for the invasion of Iraq, No Child Left Behind, and the Patriot Act, may drive some left-liberals to vote for Nader.

Still, there's one obstacle that Nader may find insurmountable: The media are almost uniformly critical of his campaign, and of him personally. This wasn't always the case. In 2000, when Nader announced he would seek the Green party's presidential nomination, news outlets were dismissive. Here's how the New York Times's Lizette Alvarez reported Nader's announcement four years ago: "Mr. Nader, 65, whose quest for the White House in 1996 earned him less than 1 percent of the vote . . . acknowledged he would face an uphill battle as the Green Party nominee."

And here's the Associated Press in 2000: "In 1992, Nader collected about 6,300 write-in votes in the New Hampshire primary, sometimes drawing crowds that rivaled those of major-party candidates." [emphasis added] The AP continued: "Nader, who turns 66 this month, faces competition for the Green Party nomination from three other candidates, including Jello Biafra, the former lead singer for the Dead Kennedys."

You can almost hear the reporter laughing. "Got that?" The AP seemed to ask. "Nader faces a primary fight with . . . Jello Biafra! Who could possibly take him seriously? Har-de-har-har!" Indeed, four years ago, most news outlets didn't think Nader's announcement was even worth covering. If you search the Lexis-Nexis database for mentions of Nader on February 22, 2000, the day after he announced he would run, you'll come up with only 73 hits, worldwide.

How times change. If you perform the same Lexis-Nexis search for mentions of Nader on February 23, 2004, the day after he announced his latest run, you'll find 203 articles--almost all of which are negative. Consider the subhed for the New York Times article that day: "Nader, Gadfly To The Democrats, Will Again Run For President." Or the Washington Post: "Nader To Run As Independent; Democrats Upset At 'Spoiler' In 2000 Race." Or the Chicago Tribune: "Defiant Nader Declares He'll Run; Seeks Presidency As An Independent." "Gadfly"? "Spoiler"? "Defiant"? And remember: These are the news headlines.

"The tenor of the Nader coverage is timorous," says Matthew T. Felling, the media director at the Center for the Media and Public Affairs. When it comes to Nader, says Felling, "The media are almost being parental toward their readers, saying, 'Don't talk to strangers.'" Felling points out that there have been a few media outlets which have run editorials emphasizing that in America, after all, anyone can run for president -- including people blamed for helping George W. Bush become president in 2000. But such editorials have been confined to regional or local papers and, even then, are few and far between.

In late February, on the day Nader announced his candidacy, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert asked him how he felt when media outlets like the Nation urged him not to run for president. "What do you say to those people?" Russert asked.

"That's the liberal intelligentsia that agrees with almost all our positions," Nader snorted, his voice rising, his eyes opening wide. "That is a contemptuous statement against democracy, against freedom, against more voices and choices for the American people."

Most people I've talked to think that Nader meant to say such media coverage was "contemptible," not "contemptuous." But when you look "contemptuous" up in the dictionary, you see it defined "full of contempt; scornful; disdainful." Which are the things that Nader thinks he sees when he reads news coverage of his campaign. And the funny thing is, he may be right.

Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.


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