OLD Media Moves

NY Review of Books criticizes business journalism

November 27, 2005

In the Dec. 15, 2005 issue of the New York Review of Books, which is now available online, there is a commentary by Michael Massing called The Press: The Enemy Within. The thesis of the commentary is that much of the media’s problems are due to their own problems.

When it comes to business journalism, Massing says this:

“At no time since before the New Deal, perhaps, has corporate America had so much power and so much influence in Washington. Between 1998 and 2004, the amount of money spent on lobbying the federal government doubled to nearly $3 billion a year, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group. The US Chamber of Commerce alone spent $53 million in 2004. During the last six years, General Motors has spent $48 million and Ford $41 million. Before joining the Bush White House, chief of staff Andrew Card worked as a lobbyist for the big auto companies. To what extent have such payments and activities contributed to the virtual freeze on the fuel-efficiency standards that have long been in effect in the US and which have helped to produce the current oil crisis? More generally, how have corporations used their extraordinary wealth to win tax breaks, gain no-bid contracts, and bend administrative rules to their liking? On November 10, The Wall Street Journal ran a probing front-page piece about how the textile industry, through intensive lobbying, won quotas on Chinese imports—an example of the type of analysis that far too rarely appears in our leading publications. “Wall Street’s influence in Washington has been one of the most undercovered areas in journalism for decades,” according to Charles Lewis, the former director of the Center for Public Integrity.

“Of course, corporations are extensively covered in the business sections of most newspapers. These began growing in size in the 1970s and 1980s, and today The New York Times has about sixty reporters assigned to business. The Times, along with The Wall Street Journal, runs many stories raising questions about corporate behavior. For the most part, though, the business sections are addressed to members of the business world and are mainly concerned to provide them with information they can use to invest their money, manage their companies, and understand Wall Street trends. Reflecting this narrow focus, the business press in the 1980s largely missed the savings and loan scandal. In the 1990s, it published enthusiastic reports on the high-tech boom, then watched in bafflement as it collapsed. Of the hundreds of American business reporters, only one—Fortune’s Bethany McLean—had the independence and courage to raise questions about the high valuation of Enron’s stock. The criminal activities in recent years of not only Exxon but also WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, and other corporate malefactors have largely been exposed not by the business press but by public prosecutors; and the fate of the companies involved, and of those who were damaged by their lies, has been only fitfully followed up.

“While business sections grow larger, the labor beat remains very solitary. In contrast to the many reporters covering business, the Times has only one, Steven Greenhouse, writing full-time about labor and workplace issues. (Several other Times reporters cover labor-related issues as part of their beats.) Greenhouse seems to be everywhere at once, reporting on union politics, low-wage workers, and corporate labor practices. More than any other big-city reporter, he has called attention to Wal-Mart’s Dickensian working conditions. Yet he could surely use some help. When, for instance, General Motors recently announced that it was scaling back health benefits for its workforce, the story appeared on the Times’s front page for a day, then settled back into the business section, where it was treated as another business story. As a result, the paper has largely overlooked the painful social effects that the retrenchments at GM, the auto-parts company Delphi, and other manufacturing concerns have had on the Midwest. More generally, the staffs of our top news organizations, who tend to be well-paid members of the upper middle class living mostly on the East and West Coasts, have limited contact with blue-collar America and so provide only sporadic coverage of its concerns.

“This summer, Nancy Cleeland, after more than six years as the lone labor reporter at the Los Angeles Times, left her beat. She made the move “out of frustration,” she told me. Her editors “really didn’t want to have labor stories. They were always looking at labor from a management and business perspective—’how do we deal with these guys?'” In 2003, Cleeland was one of several reporters on a three-part series about Wal-Mart’s labor practices that won the Times a Pulitzer Prize. That, she had hoped, would convince her editors of the value of covering labor, but in the end it didn’t, she says. “They don’t consider themselves hostile to working-class concerns, but they’re all making too much money to relate to the problems that working-class people are facing,” observed Cleeland, who is now writing about high school dropouts. Despite her strong urging, the paper has yet to name anyone to replace her. (Russ Stanton, the Los Angeles Times’s business editor, says that the paper did value Cleeland’s reporting, as shown by her many front-page stories. However, with his section recently losing six of its forty-eight reporters and facing more cuts, he said, her position is unlikely to be filled anytime soon.)”

I have long been a critic of the lack of true labor reporting within our newspapers. By true labor reporting I don’t mean workplace issues. I mean writing about unions and actual problems that face the blue-collar worker, which most in the media seem to be out of touch with. Massing sums it up nicely here.

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