Bad Ralph! Bad Ralph

From coast to coast, some big newspapers have been scolding Ralph Nader lately. Why? Because he's running for president, and a lot of people -- according to a recent national poll, 7 percent of the electorate -- intend to vote for him.

Yikes! The outspoken foe of corporate power is really making a nuisance of himself. So, certain media heavyweights are now flailing at him with tons of rolled-up newspapers.

"Ralph Nader's long history of public service championing the causes of consumers, the environment and economic justice automatically commands respect," the New York Times declared in its lead editorial on the last day of June. "But in running for president as the nominee of the Green Party, he is engaging in a self-indulgent exercise that will distract voters from the clear-cut choice represented by the major party candidates."

Many millions of Americans are repelled by this "clear-cut choice" between Al Gore and George W. Bush. But the Times proclaimed that "the public deserves to see the major party candidates compete on an uncluttered playing field." (What did we do to deserve this?)

In California, another prominent editorial -- starting from a very different premise -- also ended up asserting that Nader hasn't earned the right to be heard alongside the major party nominees. To its credit, the San Francisco Chronicle acknowledged that Gore and Bush are "in broad agreement on issues such as global trade and Social Security reform." And the paper added that "it would be ideal to include Nader, and possibly Reform Party contender Pat Buchanan" in the presidential debates planned for October.

But the Chronicle endorsed the edict laid down by the Commission on Presidential Debates requiring a minimum of 15 percent in nationwide polls. "It's not too much to ask that a candidate reach this level to qualify for debates," the editorial insisted. "The country wants to hear from the major players."

Such elitist attitudes have fueled quite a few commentaries already this summer. The menu is sparse, but don't worry about it: Settle for a presidential candidate who doesn't represent you. Pipe down and eat your peas, even if they're from the same corporate pod.

While the editorial writers at some newspapers seem content with the 15 percent barrier, others have recognized the value of moving beyond the usual narrow spectrum. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for instance, argued that "open debates would be more issue-oriented." The Texas daily said that "the two leading candidates should ask the commission to cut the requirement in half, to 7.5 percent."

Meanwhile, an Arizona Republic editorial got to the corporate core of the debates that appear set to exclude Nader: "Now that he's decided to run for president in earnest, the two major parties seem bent on facilitating his characterization of them as pawns of Big Money. AT&T, Anheuser-Busch and Sun Microsystems are among companies whose tax-deductible contributions to the Commission on Presidential Debates will fund this fall's debates."

Of course, some editorials are using the Nader campaign as a peg for invective against overall progressive agendas. In a typical broadside, the Omaha World-Herald charged that "Nader has associated himself with a political organization, the Greens, whose official political platform, adopted this spring, overflows with preposterous proposals and fantasies."

But the St. Petersburg Times in Florida recently underscored the potential of a strong progressive challenge to Republicrat rule. "The Green Party sometimes is loosely referred to as a fringe movement in American politics, but much of what the Greens stand for is -- or at least should be -- part of our political mainstream," the newspaper editorialized. "Is there anything extreme about environmental protection? Universal health care? Campaign finance reform? Civil liberties?"

As Democratic Party loyalists never tire of saying, Nader's campaign might tip the presidential election over to Bush -- a real concern for those who dread the prospect of a Republican in the Oval Office. Plenty of Americans are apt to see a dilemma.

Twenty years ago, those who figured that the differences between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan would be insignificant were wrong. But on the other hand, eight years ago, those who claimed that the Clinton-Gore duo would bring an administration worthy of support were wrong, too. History may seem to provide a foggy map for Election Day.

Ultimately, such judgments should be made by voters, not powerful media institutions or corporate-funded debate commissions run by top Democrats and Republicans. Whether editorial writers like it or not, the time has come for truly wide-ranging debate.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.