On the phone with Ralph Nader

Salon editor David Talbot and the presidential contender have a frank and honest exchange of views.

Published July 14, 2004 7:56PM (EDT)

Last Friday, Ralph Nader's campaign spokesman Kevin Zeese e-mailed Salon, saying that Nader wanted to speak with Salon editor David Talbot "about recent articles that have appeared in Salon concerning him and his candidacy." The following is a transcript of the ensuing three-way phone conversation among Nader, Zeese and Talbot. It ranged over Rupert Murdoch (whose company published Nader's new book), Democratic "dirty tricks" against the independent candidate's presidential bid, and Nader's acceptance of conservative money and support.

Nader opened the conversation by charging that Salon had not solicited a response from him when preparing two recent critical pieces about him -- "The Dark Side of Ralph Nader," by Lisa Chamberlain, and "Strange Alliance," by Eric Boehlert. For the record, Chamberlain made repeated phone calls to Nader's campaign office and Zeese's cellphone seeking a comment from Nader or his spokesman but received no replies. And Boehlert spoke to Zeese on the phone, quoting him in his piece.

Nader: Why didn't your reporters call for a response?

Talbot: They did.

Nader: Since [Lisa Chamberlain] was writing about the campaign, wouldn't you have the decency to call our campaign office?

Talbot: It's always Salon's procedure, whenever we do a critical article on anyone -- whether it's the Bush administration or you or anyone -- to give them a chance to respond. That's always our policy.

Nader: Look, I've been in journalism too, and when I was doing a critical piece on someone, I would call.

Talbot: Look, Ralph, I'm just not buying your premise that our reporter didn't try to reach you. Someone in your organization is not giving you the right information...

Nader: Wait, wait, wait! No, I'm telling you, if you make a call and you don't get through, and you're not working under deadline because you're working on the damned thing for three or four weeks, you write a letter. You write a letter! That's what I do. You write a letter!

Talbot: Our track record with you is that you've ducked every request we've made for an interview. We've called your office, we've gone through your friends, old Nader Raiders, people you trust and like. We've tried a number of ways to speak with you. And you've repeatedly avoided us. So what we decided when we contacted you again recently -- and again tried unsuccessfully to get you on the phone -- was that we were getting the same old runaround. You obviously weren't going to talk with us.

Nader: See, it's funny because Kevin doesn't have any recollection you called this office.

Zeese: Well, I'll check my notes and look for it and see what I can...

Talbot: I'll have Lisa call you and give you chapter and verse on when she called you, Kevin, and tried to speak with Ralph.

Nader: How about the second piece ["Strange Alliance: Why Is Rupert Murdoch's Media Empire Publishing Ralph Nader's Latest Tome?"] -- this complete smear? I mean, this one doesn't even pass the laugh test. Where's your banking done? Do you know any major publisher that isn't owned by a pig conglomerate?

Talbot: Rupert Murdoch is not a typical media mogul. You and I know what his agenda is and what his impact has been on American politics and culture.

Nader: Hey, wait a minute! If he had censored my book, you would've written an article saying, "Hey, now we can prove that these conglomerate CEOs are censorious and anti-democratic because they rejected Nader's book!" Six of one, half dozen of the other. You had it both ways, didn't you?

Talbot: You of all people, Ralph, know -- because we quoted you on this very subject -- what an unusual and unusually noxious role Mr. Murdoch has played in the American media landscape. And for you, of all people, to deny that and say, "Oh he's just another run-of-the-mill media mogul" is disingenuous.

Nader: Wait, wait, let me clarify this. Give me a few seconds, will you? Number one, I've gone after Murdoch mercilessly in my speeches; number two, we've challenged his acquisitions when he tried to own the papers in Boston and New York and so forth. So that wasn't just talk. And his messing around with China and kowtowing to China.

But to follow your principle would be for me to say, "I don't want anything to do with NBC. It's owned by a pig company called GE. And I certainly don't want anything to do with MSNBC because it's owned by both GE and Microsoft." They are worse than Rupert Murdoch, and I will tell you why -- Rupert Murdoch does not produce death-dealing weapons and sell them to dictatorships.

Talbot: No, he just supports and promotes those dictatorships.

Nader: Yes, but there's quite a difference isn't there, between bullets and support? He doesn't build nuclear plants; he doesn't pollute the Hudson River.

Talbot: He just played the leading role in creating the propagandistic atmosphere for the war in Iraq. His media company played and continues to play that role. You know that, Ralph. It's just disingenuous of you to downplay what Rupert Murdoch is all about.

Nader: Of course! They're all odious. Who do you think owns St. Martin's [Nader's previous publisher]? Who do you think owns all the others? Who do you think owns the Washington Post?

Talbot: Well, you and I will have to agree to disagree on the uniquely noxious role that Rupert Murdoch plays in the American media.

Nader: Well, let me trap you. Will you let me trap you? What if your brilliant Salon articles were reported on Murdoch's television programs -- would you object to that? Would you? What if they said, "Salon reported today etc., etc.," and they carried your message to millions of people that you don't reach. Would you object to that?

Talbot: This is different. He is paying you a good advance to publish your book because he has political interests in what you're doing in the presidential campaign.

Nader: He's paying me money to fight the likes of him and everyone else!

Talbot: That's not what his interest is this time, Ralph. He's interested in having you sabotage the Democratic effort to unseat President Bush.

Nader: If you read the book, which I hope you'll do and then review it, you'll see it's not a campaign book.

Talbot: I'll go you one better than that: I'll read your book and then interview you.

Nader: Well, fine. I can't wait to get an actual call from David Talbot.

Talbot: [Laughs.] Believe me, I've made many to you. And I'd love to actually sit down and interview you, Ralph. So let's try to set that up. Do I have a commitment from you that you'll give me an interview?

Nader: What's the nature of the interview?

Talbot: Your candidacy. Because here's the story -- and for some reason you feel stung by this -- we take your campaign seriously. Salon, perhaps alone among the national media, thinks you and your campaign should be given the scrutiny that every serious presidential candidate is given.

Nader: [Laughs.] Are you serious? Do you hear Kevin laughing? We're skewered to the wall every day, every hour, by every conceivable media. Don't make yourself something special.

If you really take our campaign seriously, why don't you support our right to be on the ballot and not dirty-tricked by the Democrats?

Talbot: I support your right to be on the ballot, Ralph, if you don't get dirty money to do it. That's one question I'd like to pursue with you. Your own running mate, Peter Camejo, has just said that he doesn't think you should take money from GOP fat cats.

Nader: Have you written articles about Democratic candidates over the last 10 years accepting hundreds of millions of dollars from Republican fat cats playing both sides of the aisle?

Talbot: I thought you were supposed to have higher standards.

Nader: No, I want you to answer my question before we get down to specifics.

Talbot: We've gone after the Democrats again and again. Look at the story we ran today ["The Wimpiness of the Democrats: Part 46].

Nader: All right, let me get you in another corner. In 2002, there were eight companies that pleaded guilty to criminal violations -- Chevron and Pfizer and Warner-Lambert -- either to environmental violations or antitrust violations. They gave $9 million to the Republican and Democratic parties in 2002, when they could give soft money. Did you criticize the Democrats for that?

Talbot: We've consistently criticized the Democrats and Republicans for the corrupt way that politics is financed.

Nader: So you'll check it out because it's still a good story, right? So then do you want all political candidates to interview all potential contributors to see if they've farted in the wrong place?

Talbot: Look, you know and I know who we're talking about here. The San Francisco Chronicle just named several Republican high-rollers who are funding you and yet have no interest in your consumer rights agenda.

Nader: Really? Will you ask the Democrats to give back all the money they've gotten from Republicans?

Talbot: Why are these groups giving you money and trying to get you on the ballot? They have no interest in your political agenda. They're working to get Bush elected so he can keep the war going and keep supporting his rich friends.

Nader: Wait, wait, wait. Working to get someone on the ballot is working to give someone their free speech. I have no problem with that.

Talbot: I have no problem with that either. But I think you need to question who some of your political bedfellows are, and ask why they're helping you. The press should do that with any candidate.

Nader: No, no. The criteria [for making a campaign contribution] is that you're an American citizen and it's within the limits of the law. Period. We are not going to let Salon...

Talbot: Hold on, let me finish. We have a right to point out that if you are in bed with people and groups who are anti-gay, antiabortion, anti-immigration...

Nader: Oh Jesus, you're really degrading yourself.

Talbot: Well, that's the truth.

Nader: These are press releases by these idiot groups. Look at our gay rights position -- it's much better than Kerry's.

Talbot: Why are these conservative groups helping you then?

Nader: Because they're mischievous, that's why! They want to get their name in the paper and trick people like Salon.

Talbot: They're mischievous because they think they can sabotage the Kerry campaign...

Nader: But they haven't done it, they haven't done it.

Talbot: ...by helping you.

Nader: What about the Democrats hiring three corporate law firms to harass us and drive us off the Arizona ballot? Does that bother you? In other words, what you don't like are Republicans getting us on the ballot so we can express our free speech.

Talbot: I don't support any effort to block you from legally getting on a state ballot.

Nader: All right. And are you telling them about the Republicans helping the Democrats? Do you know that the top... tell him, Kevin.

Zeese: The most recent numbers are 25 percent of Bush's supporters are also supporting Kerry.

Talbot: And why are they doing that?

Zeese: Because they're corporate paymasters! They're buying access...

Talbot: They're buying access to Kerry -- a man you have met with and honored, and said he's significantly better than Al Gore. But the reason they're giving money to you is not to buy access -- it's to keep Bush, a man you say [has been a disaster for the country], in the White House.

Nader: This is ridiculous. You're treating Republicans like they're all criminals. Did you ever hear of Republicans who might work with us on issues over the years, who might believe in civil liberties even though they might prefer a Republican ticket?

Talbot: Look, you and I know that those kinds of Republicans are few and far between. And I challenge you to show me that the bulk of this money you're getting from conservatives is meant to advance the cause of American consumers. I just don't believe that. And if that's not the case, why is your own running mate, Peter Camejo, saying that you should give back this money?

Nader: Ask him now. Look, why are you so concerned about a tiny fraction of our support in our humble attempt to go past $1 million? Most of our money is under $100 [per contribution].

Talbot: They're not just giving money. These conservative groups are working behind the scenes to get you on state ballots. You're basically saying it's all right to work with the devil, Ralph, because you've lost your perspective.

Nader: OK, now I've flushed you out. Now you've come out. I'm an expert in flushing out bias, prejudice and prejudgment. And you've demonstrated all three. Until you go after the Democrats for obstructing us with dirty tricks and using both Republican and Democratic money -- they used a Republican law firm, by the way, among their three law firms -- until you're even-handed, I will declare you hopelessly prejudiced.

Talbot: Well, we're obviously not going to sort this all out here. But I would like to sit down with you and have a formal interview.

Nader: You have already interviewed me. You have already prejudged me. You have already indicated your predisposition. And you have lied.

Talbot: How have I lied?

Nader: On the anti-gay thing: That's a declared lie. You want to explain it to him, Kevin?

Zeese: The obvious thing is that Ralph stands for strong issues on gay rights.

Talbot: But you are working with groups that are opposed to gay rights.

Zeese: We're not working with them at all.

Talbot: What agenda do you share with the Reform Party?

Zeese: Oh my God. Have you looked at their platform? They're against the war, they're for repealing the Patriot Act...

Talbot: Are you with them on abortion rights and immigration?

Nader: Not on immigration...

Zeese: We're running on Ralph's agenda, not the Reform Party's. We made that clear to the Reform Party. We do not kowtow to everything they wanted. We said, endorse us if you want to -- that's your choice. But we have an 85 percent area of agreement.

Nader: We're not going to play the fascist game of the two-party monopoly barricading itself from any competition, with all kinds of statutory obstruction that cost third parties immense time and money if they can surmount them. This is a dictatorship, which you don't seem to understand...

Talbot: I...

Nader: I've got another phone call, I've got to go. Bye-bye.

By Salon Staff

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