Shatter the Echo Chamber
By Patrick B. Pexton
The Washington Post
Here are a few thoughts from a longtime political activist:
“The Constitution is the foundation of our legal system and is based on declared, open boundaries of permissible government actions. That is what a government of law, not of men, means.”
President Obama’s actions “as secret prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner trample proper constitutional authority, separation of powers, and checks and balances and constitute repeated impeachable offenses.”
“As U.S. citizens struggle, Wall Street and Washington worry about Greece.”
Sounds like a right-wing tea partier, yes? It’s not. It’s Ralph Nader. You remember him, don’t you? The man who founded consumer activism with his crusade for auto safety in the 1960s, the guy who has run for president six times, the guy many Democrats still say was the “spoiler,” who in the 2000 campaign, as a Green Party candidate, took away enough votes from Al Gore in Florida to hand George W. Bush the election.
Nader would dispute that last charge, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say that whether you love him or hate him, over his career he has helped make cars, toys, aviation and nursing homes safer; water cleaner; air clearer; and Congress, big corporations, and the nuclear power industry more accountable.
He called me the other day to complain. Besides being smart and knowledgeable, Nader is also media-savvy and has a very healthy ego. He never hesitates to ask for more coverage of, well, him, but also of all the issues that animate him and his umbrella group, Public Citizen.
But these days, no one in the mainstream media calls him, he says. Public Citizen’s many experts aren’t called often, either, even though they are involved in a raft of issues people care about, from financial and Wall Street reform to drug safety, to foods that make kids fat, to fair trade rules, and to reorganizing the Postal Service. Their op-eds and letters to the editor rarely get published, he adds, and they’re practically shut out of cable and network television.
I don’t think this is the lament of a liberal activist, now age 78, whom the world has passed by. I think, as does he, that despite the welcome multiplicity of voices the Internet has allowed, the megaphone still goes to very few. It is increasingly difficult for iconoclastic, questioning voices to be heard, whether left, right or center.
Just look at the fate of former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, a conservative voice in the Republican Party who ended his independent presidential race this week because it was too hard to get on all 50 state ballots, or of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, running upstream as the Libertarian Party candidate for president after he, too, was rejected by the mainstream GOP.
Here are a few statistics. Nader’s name has appeared in Post articles, according to Nexis archives (which do not include all Post blogs), 48 times in the past two years. And I do mean appeared, barely. Most of the time he was simply alluded to as a historical figure.
He himself was quoted mainly in obituaries for his activist friends who are now dying off. In all the stories about the Toyota sudden-acceleration controversy, going back five years, Nader, the king of auto safety, wasn’t quoted once in The Post or the New York Times that I could find.
Similarly, Johnson got 16 appearances in Post stories and Roemer 18 in the past two years.
Contrast that with the number of Post stories that mentioned Rush Limbaugh — 202 -— or Glenn Beck, 270, or Jon Stewart, 211.
Or look at think tanks that get cited and quoted in The Post. The mainstream ones do great: the left-of-center Brookings Institution 551 times, the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute 284 times and Heritage Foundation 235 times. The U.S. Institute of Peace, one of the most interesting and innovative “think and do” tanks in the city, supported by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress: three mentions in two years.
Nader calls it the “journalism of trivia and of exclusion” — and he says that citizen groups around the country tell him that media are not hearing them. Readers of all persuasions write to me about this, too — the same sources, same talking heads, over and over.
I agree. In a time of gridlock and polarization, it is especially incumbent on media to seek out and cover the unconventional and outsider voices - whether citizen or expert, whether right, center or left. They’re out there; we just have to listen.
Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsmanwashpost.com.