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Left-Right Romance.

There are many stories about weird political couplings in Washington. But Ralph Nader and Phyllis Schlafly?

It's true. The consumer advocate and Green Party Presidential hopeful has been getting cozy with the anti-feminist, family values crusader to fight corporate power and the decline of American morals.

Nader's group Commercial Alert and Schlafly's Eagle Forum have helped organize a movement against commercial exploitation of children. Specifically, the groups are working against Channel One, a corporation that made $30 million in profits last year broadcasting television programming into public school classrooms. The company gives away TV sets and satellite dishes to the schools and then charges advertisers top dollar for access to its captive audience of eight million impressionable kids.

The Southern Baptist Convention has passed a resolution opposing Channel One. And James Dobsons Focus on the Family and the Reverend Donald Wildmon's American Family Association have been working with Nader to get the TV network out of the schools. The groups have also joined forces on anti-gambling initiatives, and to oppose the ZapMe! Corp., which gives computers to schools and then collects demographic data on kids to use in targeted advertising.

Call it rightwing populism meets leftwing anti-corporatism, or just plain strange bedfellows. But conservatives and progressive groups have been teaming up to fight "a handful of individuals exploiting the populace of America to make a buck," as Ron Reno, a research analyst at Focus on the Family, puts it.

Despite Republicans' reputation for being pro-business and anti-regulation, there is a strong strain of anti-corporatism on the right. Margaret Talbot wrote about it recently in an article entitled "Inward Christian Soldiers" in The New York Times Magazine. In her profile of an evangelical Christian family that dropped out of mainstream, consumer society, Talbot concluded: "We have arrived, it seems, at a moment in our history when the most vigorous and coherent counterculture around is the one constructed by conservative Christians."

Have eight years of Bill Clinton and the Wall Street boom left progressives so enervated that even Ralph Nader has to go looking for anti-corporate allies on the right? Gary Ruskin, who runs Nader's group Commercial Alert, thinks so: "It looks to me like there's an increase in anti-corporate sentiment on the right, while at the same time there is a decrease in anti-corporate sentiment among some liberals," he says.

In a way, it's not surprising. It takes a lot of energy, and a strong ideological viewpoint, to resist the seductions of corporate mass culture. When I first saw Channel One--the daily, twelve-minute news show that 40 percent of American teenagers now grow up watching--I found myself zoning out, in a passive, TV-induced reverie. The show features a jazzy, MTV-style format, a relentless, chest-thumping soundtrack, attractive young news anchors, and slick, seductive ads. Many of the commercials, which go for $200,000 a spot, are the same ones you've seen on prime-time television. There are funny ads for M&Ms, potato chips, Pepsi, and Mountain Dew, sexy ads showing boys ogling girls in bathing suits, and scary ads for violent movies and the Marines. Aside from the fact that watching the advertising is mandatory--Channel One assures advertisers that kids can't get up to go to the bathroom or turn down the volume while the ads are on--the experience of seeing Channel One is almost mindnumbingly ordinary. It is more of the same commerical culture we all marinate in every day. I had trouble remembering the content of the news. But the ads reached directly to my id: food, mmmm!

It's encouraging, or at least interesting, that people from completely different backgrounds have mobilized to resist this ubiquitous corporate come-on. Of course, Channel One's rightwing and leftwing opponents still have different agendas. The American Family Association adopts Naderesque language to identify Channel One with the tag line, "exploiting our children for profit" on its web site. But the web site also includes the alert: "University of Michigan in `complete support' of homosexual initiation class." And while Focus on the Family mobilizes members to oppose Channel One, as well as gambling machines that target kids, the group's web site also warns members that "schools stock witchcraft books."

Both Nader and Schlafly are quick to point out that they're willing to go only so far with the left-right romance.

"You have to be very careful because you can start tempering your positions. You can be too solicitous," says Nader. "You have to enter and leave on your own terms. You tell them, `Here's what we're doing, if you want to join us, fine. If not, fine.'"

Schlafly is equally cautious. "We [Nader and I] agree that the public schools should not be used for commercial purposes," she says. "A captive audience of students should not be sold for profit. I agree with that. I don't recall his objection to the content of the news, which is what stirs up a lot of conservatives."

Content is certainly what stirred up Pat Ellis, an Alabama mom who launched the conservative movement against Channel One in 1994. That was the year her son came home from sixth grade and said, "Mom, I think the United States of America ought to legalize drugs," as Ellis recalls the conversation. "I said, `Where did you get that?' and he said, `[a debate on] Channel One.'"

Ellis organized parents and business leaders to drive Channel One out of her local school district. On May 20, 1999, she sat behind Phyllis Schlafly and Ralph Nader as the two testified about Channel One at a Senate committee hearing in Washington, D.C. Schlafly denounc-ed the company for playing "satanic music" by Marilyn Manson in one of its broadcasts. "The guy from Channel One said, `That never happened,'" Ellis says. "And here I am with a tape in my hand with the satanic music on it, and I couldn't say anything because I wasn't called to testify!"

Stay tuned, the Channel One story gets stranger.

A controversy erupted among conservatives when Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition, was hired as a consultant to help boost Channel One's image.

"I was shocked that Ralph Reed was behind it," says Asa Goode, a Republican political consultant in Birmingham, Alabama. Goode got a telephone call not long ago, he says, from a fellow Alabama conservative. "They told me they would pay me to write an editorial supporting Channel One. And I'm anti-Channel One! The person they were representing was Ralph Reed. And they told me, `Oh, he is big into this.' I was told he has a contract with Channel One to promote it. I don't know why he would essentially be fronting for Channel One.... Clearly, there's a lot of money involved." (Ralph Reed did not respond to my request for comment on the matter.)

There's no question that big bucks are at stake. Channel One spent nearly $1 million, according to lobbying disclosure reports, around the time of the Senate committee hearings--all to counter the part time work of an Alabama housewife and members of the coalition with Ralph Nader.

So has Ralph Nader replaced Ralph Reed as a standard bearer for conservatives?

"We're crossing all kinds of barriers here," says Ellis. "You've got Ralph Reed, ex-president of the Christian Coalition, selling out. He's selling out kids, and I think it's terrible.

"And then," Ellis continues, "Senator Wellstone [Democrat of Minnesota] comes in and he testifies for Channel One, and Wellstone's aide is telling us how great it is. And then, a few months later, the aide goes to work for Channel One."

Wait a minute. Paul Wellstone? Leftwing college professor? Grassroots community organizer? The most progressive member of the U.S. Senate?

"Yeah," says Gary Ruskin. "Let me tell you what happened."

Not only has the anti-Channel One battle brought together Ralph Nader and Phyllis Schlafly. On the pro-corporate side, it seems, Channel One has united veterans of both the Christian Coalition and Paul Wellstone's staff.

According to Ruskin, a Wellstone legislative assistant by the name of Roger Wolfson told him to come up to Wellstone's Capitol Hill office on May 17, 1999. This was several days before the Channel One hearing, at the height of Channel One's lobbying frenzy.

"Wolfson said: `Look, I want to talk with you about what you're doing and sit you down with some of the Channel One folks and have you talk it out,'" Ruskin recalls.

When he arrived in Wellstone's offices, Ruskin was escorted into a conference room, where he sat with Wolfson and "a couple of flaks for Channel One." Wolfson asked him to give his anti-Channel One pitch in front of the Channel One people, thus, Ruskin felt, giving away his ammunition for the upcoming hearing. "Then Wolfson said something like, what can we do to make you back off?" Ruskin says.

Ruskin, who was a student of Wellstone's at Carleton College in Minnesota, felt betrayed. "Wellstone set me up," he says. "I think he owes me an apology."

Wellstone was unavailable for comment, according to his press secretary Andrew MacDonald. "He'd be concerned if something inappropriate had transpired," MacDonald says, "but he wasn't in the meeting and I don't think he heard anything about it from either Ruskin or from our former staffer." Wellstone made a brief appearance at the Channel One hearing to say that educators in his state like using the program, but as a teacher, he thought current events could be taught without it. "So I am all over the map on this question," Wellstone said.

Wolfson left Wellstone's office and went to work for Channel One exactly three months after his meeting with Ruskin.

The Senate Ethics Manual in its section on "Negotiating for Future Employment," urges Senators and their staff to "avoid not only an actual conflict of interest, but also the appearance of conflict" between their duties and prospective employers' interests.

To illustrate the problem, it quotes the late Senator Paul Douglas, Democrat of Illinois: "The official becomes dissatisfied with his salary and his job. He begins to cast envious glances at better-paid men in the private industry with which he is dealing. He wants to join them, and he begins to wonder how he can do so if he offends the companies which are involved. If he is to make the transfer, must he not stand well in the estimation of those who can hire him? As the official broods over these facts, the virtue begins to ooze out of him."

The manual urges every staffer to "recuse himself from any contact or communication with a prospective employer on issues of legislative interest to the prospective employer while job negotiations are under way."

Was Wolfson negotiating for employment when the Channel One hearing came up? His answer is an emphatic no. He was "heartbroken" after Wellstone gave up his run for the Presidency last spring, Wolfson says, and began looking for a new job. But he didn't start talks with Channel One until July, a couple of months after the Channel One hearing was over.

When I call Wolfson at the New York offices of Channel One, he quickly establishes common ground. "I love The Progressive," he says. He tells me about the progressive causes and Democratic campaigns he's worked on. Also, his father and brother both went to my alma mater. And, he tells me, his career change came at a good time because his mother has cancer: "I can spend a lot more time with her now."

Wolfson basically confirms Ruskin's account of their meeting, except he adds that his intent was not to pressure Ruskin but to find common ground between the two sides (something he prides himself on). "I still don't see why Nader and Channel One can't be on the same side," he says.

Wolfson remembers that he was initially skeptical about Channel One himself.

"The first I heard of it," he says, "was from Nader's people. I idolized Nader. So my first reaction was basically the same as theirs. And Ruskin is very persuasive. And then I actually saw the show. I watched it in part because I was really suspicious that Nader and Phyllis Schlafly agreed on something."

Wolfson was deeply impressed with what he saw. "In spite of the bad stuff you hear from Nader and the opponents," he says, "it really is the closest thing this country has to a national curriculum."

Colin Powell, Nelson Mandela, and various other luminaries have appeared on Channel One. "After Columbine, when President Clinton wanted to talk to high school students, he went on Channel One," Wolfson says.

He points to specials on race, body image, teen depression, and women in broadcasting as good examples of Channel One fare. "This is just the kind of stuff I want kids to see in school, because in lots of schools, kids don't get anything at all about current events," he says. And then there's the fact that Brill's Content says Channel One is more in-depth, thoughtful, and unbiased than the NBC Nightly News.

Still, isn't it distasteful to make money by selling ads, at prime-time rates, so marketers can take advantage of a captive audience of kids?

"Basically, everybody in the school environment makes money off kids: teachers, cafeteria workers, the people who fix the buildings," Wolfson says. "It's not really an issue to me of, do you want to make money. The question is, what do you do with the kid's attention when you've got it? Making money is appropriate if you're a good teacher. So the only question is if Channel One is a good teacher. To me, the evidence is overwhelming that it is."

But for Pat Ellis, that's not the issue at all. "That's not the purpose of schools, to sell products to children," she says. "Plus, advertising is about using psychological techniques to manipulate. They spend millions of dollars on perfecting their techniques. So we're inviting them in and saying, `Have at our children.'"

For Ruskin, the issue illustrates a point about politics in Washington--not left or right, but rather the public interest versus corporate power:

"I'm happy to work with conservatives," says Ruskin, "when the folks who are supposed to be protecting kids from exploitation like Paul Wellstone aren't doing the job.... Ralph Reed and Senator Wellstone work together to preserve corporate exploitation of children."

Ruth Conniff is Washington Editor of The Progressive.
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Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
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Date:May 1, 2000
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