MediaWatch: December 1990

Vol. Four No. 12

Nader's Media Evaders

Perhaps no public figure in the last twenty years has been less subject to journalistic scrutiny than Ralph Nader. Despite a career of "public interest" lobbying for full public disclosure and strict government regulation, Nader has never been pressed by the news media to disclose even his street address.

Not only do the media publicize Nader studies and lawsuits with a minimum of investigation or criticism, they describe his liberal groups the way they want to be described. In fact, some of the organizations from which Nader has tried to disassociate himself are almost never identified as Naderite.

To document these trends, MediaWatch analysts used the Nexis news data retrieval system to locate every 1987, 1988 and 1989 story on some of the most well-known Nader groups (Center for Study of Responsive Law, Public Citizen, the Public Interest Research Groups, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest). Sources included three magazines (Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report) and three newspapers (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post). In 1,267 news stories, the groups were labeled liberal five times (0.3 percent), and were identified as Nader groups in only 246 stories, or 19 percent.

Nader readily identifies himself with the Center for Study of Responsive Law (CSRL), the central core of his many enterprises, which usually stays out of the limelight. In every one of its 17 mentions, the Center was identified with Nader, though it was never tagged with a liberal label.

But the more Nader tries to distance himself from one of his organizations, the less reporters identify them with him. In 1989, he told The Washington Post he "no longer has a formal link" to Public Citizen, his flagship lobbying group. In 621 stories, Public Citizen's array of subsidiary groups received three liberal labels (0.5 percent) and 211 Nader identifications (34 percent). Public Citizen, when listed by itself, was identified as a Nader group in just 46 percent of stories. Print reporters identified Public Citizen's subgroups with Nader even less. Congress Watch, Nader's "good-government" group, was linked to Nader in 32 percent of its mentions and the Litigation Group, active in the fight against the Bork nomination, was identified in 30 percent of its mentions. The Health Research Group (21 percent) scored even lower.

Reporters often replaced what should have been a liberal label with a Nader reference. "Some of the 'friends of the court' in this case would not be friends anywhere else, like Ralph Nader's Public Citizen and the conservative Washington Legal Foundation," declared The New York Times on December 15, 1989. The newspapers repeated that formulation on stories covering the Nader- Washington Legal Foundation alliance five times.

The Public Interest Research Groups, or PIRGs, were rarely described as Naderite. Created in 1970 with funds from Nader's personal income, according to Dan Burt's expose Abuse of Trust, PIRGs operate both nationally (with the Washington-based U.S. PIRG) and locally through groups that were organized in the 1970s by a National PIRG Clearinghouse. But since at least the early '80s, Nader spokesmen have claimed there are "no common projects or informational connections" between Nader and the PIRG chapters. Since Nader withdrew from association with PIRGs, so did reporters' descriptions. In 375 stories, reporters employed only two liberal labels (0.5 percent) and 18 Nader identifications (5 percent).

All this disassociation has a tendency to get out of hand. An April 13 story in the Los Angeles Times reported: "The overall goal of the campaign is being supported by a wide-ranging coalition that includes Public Interest Research Groups, Public Citizen, and Clean Water Action." This "wide-ranging coalition" was really three Naderite groups. (According to Nader spokesmen quoted by Burt, Clean Water Action began as a Nader "task force"). The Times easily misled the public.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was incorporated in 1971 by former employees of Nader's Center for Study of Responsive Law, including Michael Jacobson, who still serves as CSPI President. An April, 1990 MediaWatch study found CSPI was never labeled liberal and its Naderite origins were never disclosed in 254 stories.

That April study also measured the frequency that reporters used terms denoting advocacy ("lobbying," "activist," and so on). Despite the very activist nature of all of Nader's organizations, the groups studied were described by advocacy terms in only 219 of 1,267 stories, or 17 percent. CSPI led with 25 percent, but Public Citizen only received activist labels 13 percent of the time, and CSRL stories never used the terminology. Even when they did use advocacy terms, reporters sometimes called Nader groups "pro-environment," "good-government" or "health" advocates, or in a triumph of having it both ways, The New York Times called PIRG "nonpartisan advocates."

Coverage of Ralph Nader is only one of the more glaring examples of the national media's habit of handing liberal groups all the subtle privileges of media favoritism. While the corporations Nader attacks are assailed for their undeserved influence and lack of public disclosure, Nader can rest confident in the glow of knowing he'll probably never be challenged by the media on his own terms.