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Nader rallies his faithful before WTVT testimony

He touts poll numbers keeping him above 5 percent and qualifying him for federal matching funds.

By WAYNE WASHINGTON and SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


TAMPA -- The poll numbers might prompt Al Gore to fire his entire staff. George W. Bush might decide to have a younger George Bush (brother Jeb's Spanish-speaking, super-hunk of a son) give all of his stump speeches.

But when you're Ralph Nader, creeping up to 8 percent in the polls isn't a reason to fret. It's cause for celebration.

Nader, the 66-year-old consumer rights advocate and Green Party presidential candidate, came to Tampa on Thursday to testify in the civil trial pitting television investigators Steve Wilson and Jane Akre against WTVT-Ch. 13, the Fox station that fired them three years ago. His visit doubled as a campaign stop.

Nader's supporters, 15 to 20 in number, had gathered in a lecture room at the University of Tampa's Walker Hall on short notice. Nader gave them the happy news about his poll numbers.

Nationwide, Nader said, polls show him getting between 6 percent and 8 percent. He has near double-digit support in California, New York and Michigan, he said.

"And just yesterday, the Quinnipiac (University) poll had me at 11 percent in Connecticut," Nader said.

"Yesss!" some of his excited followers exclaimed.

Staying above the 5 percent threshold is important because that qualifies him for federal matching funds and bolsters his argument that he should be allowed to participate in debates that feature Gore and Bush.

Actually winning in November? That's about as likely as snowfall in Tampa today.

Still, Nader's followers are keeping the faith.

They passed out green Ralph Nader-Winona LaDuke campaign pins and noted that Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura was just the type of longshot Nader is now. They mentioned that because LaDuke, Nader's running mate, is an American Indian, the success of the ticket would mean better treatment for Indians and for other minority groups.

They tacked up Nader-LaDuke campaign posters and held up a long Nader banner. Many wore green to symbolize their solidarity with the Green Party.

Nader's supporters care about the same issues the Gore and Bush supporters care about -- taxes, the environment, health care. But they also have a few other things on their minds.

"I don't think genetically modified food would have happened under (Nader's) watch as it did under Gore's," said Linda Connelly, a systems engineer from Temple Terrace.

For his part Thursday, Nader stuck to familiar themes. Standing behind a University of Tampa lectern, his shoulders just beginning to slouch, he looked frail. But his voice was as firm as ever.

He railed against his favorite enemy, corporations, and those he calls their henchmen, mainstream politicians. "The polls are overwhelming against corporate welfare," Nader said. "What is needed is a president who can reach out to the public and end this corporate welfare."

Staffers distributed a flier announcing Nader's challenge to Bush and Gore to join him in promising to end corporate giveaways.

"It is a convenient inside ballgame which keeps corporations and politicians fat and happy," he said. When his speech was done, his supporters cheered. "Spread the word," he said as he left to go testify.

Even on the witness stand, he trained his fire at corporate misdeeds.

Wilson and Akre, who are married, claim the television station unlawfully dismissed them for refusing to lie in a story about a controversial hormone being used by Florida milk producers. They say a multinational corporation put pressure on their station to soften their stories.

Fox argues that Wilson and Akre were dismissed for insubordination.

Nader did not testify about the facts of their case, but answered questions about federal laws requiring broadcast companies and journalists to report truthful and accurate news. "The public's First Amendment right to know . . . is supreme to the First Amendment rights of a broadcaster," Nader said in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

Asked by Wilson, who is representing himself at trial, whether a reporter has an obligation to refuse to put a false report on the air, Nader answered, "A reporter shouldn't be an instrument of deception."

After his testimony, Nader called the trial "an exceedingly important case."

He said it shed light on the common practice of news organizations' self-censorship when corporations threaten litigation.

"The chilling factor is deliberate. (These corporations) know what they're doing," he said.

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