Media Moves

Understanding the Business & Media Institute

September 7, 2006

Dan Gainor, the director of the Business & Media Institute, is a veteran editor with two decades’ experience in print and online media. He has served as an editor at several newspapers including The Washington Times and The Baltimore News-American. Gainor also has extensive experience in online publishing – holding the position of managing editor for CQ.com, the Web site of Congressional Quarterly, and executive editor for ChangeWave, published by Phillips International.

Business & Media InstituteThe Business & Media Institute critiques business journalism coverage that it believes is biased against a free market economy, publishing several critiques a day on its Web site.

Gainor explained the critiques and how he views business journalism today in an e-mail interview. What follows is an edited transcript.

1. How did the Business & Media Institute get started?

The Business & Media Institute has changed names twice, but was founded in 1992 as a division of the Media Research Center to help address the anti-free enterprise culture in the major media. What we do is kind of unique – sort of like a business ombudsman for media.

2. How do you feel like the Web site is helping the quality of business journalism?

We target problem stories, trends, discrepancies and a host of other issues in the news. I spent a couple decades in news and write a regular pro-business column for the Baltimore Examiner. I know it stinks to have someone criticize your work. But seeing what reporters do wrong with stories is the only way to learn to fix it. That’s what editors are supposed to do – fix stories. I hope journalists see these problems and don’t make the same mistakes twice. We’re also there for news consumers. It’s our hope that by learning things on our site they aren’t seeing in other media, they’ll be savvier readers and viewers.

3. How does the staff select the media articles or shows to critique?

We monitor a ton of news – network news, print, and online media – and talk it over each day. The bad reporting is usually pretty clear. Ken Shepherd and Amy Menefee, who work with me, do a great job spotting stories that need work. Then we hit trends with our weekly newsletter, The Balance Sheet, and do big Special Reports on longer-term issues.

4. Is there more of an emphasis on critiquing economics coverage, or on critiquing business coverage?

Probably more business than econ just because that’s more reader friendly. But it’s a nice mix of both. The wonkier a story, the less interested I become as a reader. At the same time, there are business and economic principles touching so many issues everyone deals with on a daily basis, so there’s lots of overlap.

5. Are you OK with articles that present an anti-free market opinion as long as they show both sides of the argument?

Of course. I might disagree with them, but nothing is beyond criticism. The problem I have is that the free-market perspective is often ignored or worse. People need all the information available to make the best decisions about their lives, especially financial decisions or voting decisions. What we’re after is context. I worked for Congressional Quarterly as an editor, and I felt like they did an excellent job of presenting facts without leaning toward one side or another. In my ideal world, stories would be balanced and reporters all would do a good job. I’d gladly be out of a job to accomplish that, but I don’t see it happening.

6. How often do you and the staff write critiques?

We publish Monday-Friday and post articles every one of those days. The newsletter comes out each week on Wednesday.

7. Do you ever get a response from the journalists who have been criticized? What do they say?

Of course. And the responses are all over the map. CBS’s Public Eye blog responded to our analysis of their 2005 unemployment coverage. (In a year when 2 million jobs were added, the big three networks had more than 50 percent of their job stories about job losses.) Anthony Mason was quoted in their blog defending their coverage but admitting, “For the most part, broad based media has done a lousy job of explaining the economy to people.� I agree. It’s my job to help fix that. I am a journalist. I couldn’t view myself any other way. I think journalists I talk to respect that.

8. What do you see as the biggest issues in business journalism today?

I’ll say two: The first might surprise you because I’ll say audience. Who are business stories written for? Investors? Owners? Workers? Depending on that answer, you know how to write. Too many stories try to do a little bit of everything. The result is a mess. Unemployment goes down and workers are happy but businessmen aren’t. How do you write that story? Usually, it’s written from the consumer angle as good news. Wage drops are a worker problem and wage increases spur inflation – so both results end up bad news. A new business might displace an old one – which do you focus on?

The other problem is the dreaded B-word everyone hates talking about – bias. It’s the big freakin’ elephant in the room. Everyone has biases and opinions. Most journalists are inherently suspicious of wealth and power even in their own organizations, so that sets them up to be antagonists to business. But unions also are wealthy and powerful, and government is more so. You could say the same about trial lawyers and more. Everybody has an agenda. A good reporter shouldn’t embrace one side more than another. Until journalists accept that this is a problem and work to fix it, the American public will continue to lose confidence.

I’m going to include a micro-rant on this: The first publication, network or whatever that realizes this wins big. If a major media outlet really starts to analyze how it puts together stories, how they are presented and spun and tries hard to get all of the stakeholders (as much as I hate that word) into the process, they will be the first ones to really win back credibility. Nobody I know wants a conservative monopoly on the press or a solely pro-business press. What they want is the media to tell the story of life here in America without spin or agenda – and that’s darn hard.

9. How can those problems be solved?

This is a start. We have to talk about it. I think stories have to be clear about their goals. What does this mean to investors? Businessmen? I want people to talk to me about what we write, too. If you don’t agree, tell me why. If you learned something, tell us that as well. It should be a two-way conversation, not a boring lecture. I strongly urge any reporter to contact me about what we write, problems in coverage, etc., at dgainor@mediaresearch.org. We focus on major media, but I still like to hear from other news outfits. I really hope to expand that conversation between journalists and businesspeople.

As for bias, stop arguing the point. Most Americans accept it’s a problem; why keep refighting the issue? Journalism has a credibility problem that is getting worse, not better. Part of it stems from the star syndrome. Too many big-name reporters/editors/broadcasters use their fame and mouth off on issues instead of being quiet on their own opinions. Then there’s the mix of journalism, news and infotainment. Yes, viewers and readers like it, but we have an obligation to hold it to some professional standards.

Just the other day, Jack Cafferty, one of the hosts of CNN’s “In the Money,� went off on a crazy rant arguing that there could be some conspiracy where the oil companies are lowering gas prices to help Republicans win the 2006 mid-term elections. He didn’t have any evidence. He just had a few too many opinions to keep bottled up. Had I been his boss, I would have fired him. Right there. On the spot. Why doesn’t that happen more? Maybe that would stop working journalists from becoming pundits while pretending to be unbiased.

10. Do you feel like journalists are receptive to the Institute’s criticism?

Yes and I think it’s improving all the time. I spoke at the Society of Professional Journalists convention in August and met many journalists who are looking for help in their coverage. Economist Brian Wesbury joined the panel at our request and he clearly struck a chord with the audience by challenging them.

One reason why we are getting noticed is we don’t just point out the bad. Every issue of the newsletter includes a section we call the “Good, Bad and Ugly.� The good always celebrates the work of journalists doing exactly what they are supposed to do. No one wants to hear negative comments all the time, in my opinion. (I urge anyone reading this to sign up for the newsletter – it’s free – and see for themselves at our site www.businessandmedia.org).

11. Who are some business journalists that you like to read, and why?

Mellody HobsonI like economists who put the complex world in simple terms – Larry Kudlow, Walter Williams and Don Boudreaux, to name a few. On TV, I will always watch ABC’s Mellody Hobson. She’s great. For news copy, I’ve never been a byline watcher. To me, the hallmark of good journalism is that a magazine or newspaper produces good stories, well-written and well-edited. The names can change, but the results stay the same.

12. What publications do the best job?

I’ve always liked The Wall Street Journal. It’s the best-written paper in America. It also has an incredible editorial section. I like its smaller competitor, Investor’s Business Daily – more free market and again it has a compelling opinion section. For magazines, I like Forbes for its free-market stance and Fortune for its issue stories. On TV, it’s Kudlow or Cavuto. CNN’s business coverage is horrible. “In the Moneyâ€? isn’t a business show – it’s often an anti-business show. Who on the network made that wonderful decision? What next? A health program that’s anti-doctor? That goes back to my audience point.

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