Fall 1998

3. Economics

Richard Parker, the panel chair, began the discussion:

Discussion Who’s Who
  • Burnham, David—Co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data-gathering organization.
  • Kovach, Bill—Nieman Foundation Curator.
  • Mintz, Morton—former reporter, Washington Post.
  • Parker, Richard—Senior Fellow, Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
  • Shanahan, Eileen—Retired reporter, New York Times.
  • Solman, Paul—Business Correspondent,“The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.”
  • Warsh, David—Economics Columnist, Boston Globe.


It was only at the tail end of the 19th Century and the dawn of the 20th Century that you see these vast debates within journalism about objectivity and this pursuit of objectivity, the idea that there were RELATED ARTICLES

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objective ways to gather the news, not just objective facts to be gathered, so that it was about what we gathered, but also the routines through which we gathered, filtered and presented the news were all part of this whole turn of the century shift.

What the shift then leads into is a journalism that we define as muckraking that sets out to do two things. It sets out to expose corruption in the private sector, but it also inspires an extraordinary journalism of public sector corruption.

The investigations into municipal and state governments, into federal agencies, the like, were as much a part of investigative reporting of the period, the watchdog reporting of the period, as were the exposés of corruption in the giant corporations.

This optimism about government gives the journalistic narrative the opportunity to give Americans a belief that there’s a way out of what is seen as the inevitable corruption that goes along with capitalism at the dawn of the 20th Century, and it builds into journalism a kind of distrust of power that remains throughout a good part of the 20th Century very deeply focused on corporate-based abuse.

It also launches and sustains an earlier tradition of exposure of government corruption, but it gives rise to this new and systematic investigation of the economy, as such, and institutions and arrangements of power in the economy that deeply interconnect the idea of politics and economics in journalism.

Now, what’s changed about the current period? Well, if we look at the research data, the polling that’s gone over the last 30 years, it is clear that it’s about the decline in confidence in the ability or viability of government to act as incorruptible, to act in the public interest, and increasingly to believe that it can act in lieu of what are seen as market failures.

What’s lacking in the current period [is] not the fact that there’s an inadequate amount of watchdog economic reporting going on.

There can always be more, but it’s not that we’re starving for it, nor that it can’t be found or that it can be found only randomly or by accident in a few papers, but rather that it’s increasingly difficult for audiences to connect with journalism or to connect with any conception of how we would get out of the box that journalism presents to us as being the dilemmas of the late 20th Century economic situation.

What I want to suggest is that we’re at the end of a period where we all survived on a journalism that thrived in the period of communism and anti-communism with a certain set of parameters that subordinated economics watchdog reporting, and I think in the post-communist period that we’re going to see elevated continuously, questions of how to do economic reporting. What I tried to suggest is that in order to do good, and by that, I mean, not just good reporting that meets all the internal professional standards, but that doesn’t remain the tree that falls in the proverbial forest, that reaches audiences and mobilizes audiences. We need to think outside what it is that is plaguing journalism today.

SHANAHAN—We didn’t really discuss what was good watchdog journalism at any great length. I think we were operating from a pretty common set of assumptions and said so and went on.

There are a lot of institutional barriers, and one of the first ones is what somebody put, I thought, correctly, as the reward and punishment system and philosophy—what makes the boss think well of you and give you even better assignments or maybe even better money or what makes him say: “Oh, that person is a pain in the butt. I wish he/she would go away.” If the message out there in the newsroom is go away, people will go away. People will be discouraged from fighting for what they want unless it is recognized that this is wanted, and so one of the questions becomes, How do you keep the reward and punishment balance within the newsroom working to create an appetite for, “Boy, Charlie, yeah, go ahead, yeah, sure, that smart kid can fill in City Hall for six months. I hope it only takes three, but go do it.”

Before you get to that point, though, you need reporters who know enough and care enough to push and push against the reward and punishment system if the need be. I have a bias here. I have been a beat reporter all my life. I have a sense [of] general assignment reporters who can go into a story they never saw before today and come back and get it 96 percent right. I’ve known a great many who can do that; I stand in awe of such people.

But I know what the good beat reporter can do, and I think it’s often the beat reporter who picks up because [he/she knows] all those folks who work for the head of the government agency or in the corporation [and] who will perceive what it is that needs watchdog attention. It doesn’t have to be wrong-doing. I think it often is. It can, however, be just something that isn’t working well.

What most editors are saying, and not just yielding to, but pushing, is soft news. That’s what people want to read. I want that feature on how to handle your divorce or what to cook for dinner tonight or where to go on vacation or I love the really great human interest stories which The Washington Post is increasingly putting on Page 1, and when they are illuminating a life and a society that lies behind that life, they can be truly wonderful. I’m not knocking those, but I’m knocking soft news, I think that is what’s killing newspapers.

We aren’t giving them the hard news and the strong features that are related to the real societal problems that I believe people want to read and some successful papers are doing it, but not very many.

MINTZ—Let’s just spend a moment on what should be our guiding light. The founding fathers of this country believed that power had to be checked, balanced and balanced, and in the First Amendment they were saying monitored, audited. That’s our mission.

Well, after the Constitution was written, the industrial revolution hit the United States, and we had this vast expansion of corporate power which Richard Parker talked about.

Big corporations govern directly. When they decide to withhold a safety feature on an automobile, they are deciding whether you will live or die, with some allowance for the odds, and they govern indirectly when they buy the governors, and yet, somehow, their conduct does not get the attention it deserves.

Now, what are the obstacles to doing this kind of reporting? Well, there are a lot of them that are self-imposed. I’ll give you some examples. The New York Times and The Washington Post and the Washington bureaus have some kind of nebulous objection to printing “reports.” They’re not talking about government reports. They’re talking about reports by groups, so-called public interest groups, like Public Citizen or Ralph Nader’s outfit, and my question about that attitude is, what the hell has that got to do with it?

The question is, is there information here that the public ought to have? It’s not whether Ralph Nader did it or somebody like that.

Another self-imposed obstacle that I just heard about the other day, I happened to come across a story that I would not do because it’s not the kind of thing I usually do. I tried to pass it on to a person at The Washington Post who I thought would be interested, and the response was, ‘Well, Mort, honestly, you might want to think about going elsewhere with it.’

‘Well, why is that?’

‘Well, because there is a resistance here to stories based on individual lawsuits.’

‘Where does this objection come from, from the lawyers or the editors?’

‘The editors.’

Again, what the hell has that got to do with it, whether it’s an individual lawsuit or a class action or whatever? The question is, what’s there that ought to be out there?

There’s also the question of social contacts. I had a little exposure to this in 1975. I’d been writing about the antitrust lawsuit brought against IBM. One day, I was surprised to get an invitation to an off-the-record lunch upstairs with IBM. I came in a little late. [Mrs. Graham] said: “Oh, here’s Mort. He’s the thorn in all of our sides,” but the significant thing about it was that, off the record, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, former Attorney General of the United States, gave us his side of why the government had brought a lousy, rotten suit against IBM. Well, it happens that Mr. Katzenbach was at the same time a director of The Washington Post Company. I thought there was a little conflict of interest operating there, but what perception of ownership attitudes would one think the editors who were there and others would get from this?

We also have to face the fact that there are a lot of owners out there who are not going to be influenced by anything we do unless we can embarrass them, to put their faces in it in some way and try and make them shape up. I think that’s got to be a focus.

WARSH—I have three related points that I wanted to make. As I listened to the panels, I thought that there was something about economic and financial watchdog journalism that was slightly different from the kind of high-wire reporting that we were talking about this morning, and it occurred to me that it was this: that because of the industrial revolution and the political history, there are at least three aspects of the geography of reporting in economics and finance that are different from anything else.

One is the Securities Act of 1934, which requires that public companies disclose all news that’s materially important to their financial position as it becomes known and, also, that they publish audited statements at quarterly intervals.

Two is the Full Employment Act of 1946, which sort of enshrines a lot of what the Keynsian revolution was about in the way of tasking government with economic management and provides for some sort of reporting channels there in which they have to testify to Congress.

The third is the existence of the economics profession, this huge, in many ways, parallel organization to the financial press that exists based in universities, that concerns itself with a lot of the same things. That means an awful lot of information gets pushed out onto the record in timely fashion that doesn’t get pushed out in politics or international relations or damn near any other sphere of reporting that I can think of, except sports where they have to tell you who won in the end.

The point that you’ve heard variously from Eileen and Mort—but I think it’s crucial to my understanding of why watchdog reporting is scarce—is that it’s hard. It’s humanly hard. It makes the people who practice it shorter and shorter tempered over time. It gets in the way of their good relations with their editors.

In the cases I’m talking about, the economists and the corporate governance community looking over your shoulder, those people are critical of reporting as well, and their raised eyebrows and otherwise communicated disdain can be very hard on people who seek to service novel and important insights. Nevertheless, people do. It goes on all the time.

I have nothing against thinking of us as a pack of dogs of various persuasions, we journalists, but I thought if you thought of news as analogous to music, as perhaps the print press is analogous to a symphony, it was easier to talk about what I meant. [There are] a lot of different voices in a symphony, a lot of different instruments do a lot of different things.

We would not say of watchdog journalism that that’s what our business is about any more than we’d say horn music is what our business is about. It’s one element in a fairly complicated mix of voices that we package together and sell to advertisers and the public.

What I think is special about watchdog journalism is that it’s analogous to improvisation in many ways. The best watchdog journalism is like a riff that begins with a solitary reporter or team of reporters someplace off, on left field or on 43rd Street or someplace where it’s unique, and it’s news, and it’s novel.

And if it’s well done, it gets picked up, and before very long, you’ve got three or four voices playing it, and if you’ve really done your job well, before very long, you’ve got the whole symphony improvising on a set of themes that were initially introduced by one hard-working reporter someplace.

If it’s not successful, as it’s often not, it dies out. The people who make decisions about whether it will be successful aren’t just one editor conducting this organization, but a lot of people, critics of all sorts, but the fact is that good watchdog reporting is an act of improvisation that seeks to become more widely available, more dominant as a theme that the news reading public hears.

(When the panel ran out of time, Solman offered this summation.

SOLMAN—“Is there a need for more aggressive or watchdog reporting?”—our panel’s answer, regarding economics, was a resounding “yes.” (There seemed to be little agreement with the premise of Richard Parker’s motivating essay, as best the rest of us understood it, that there’s a sufficient quantity of such reporting these days; simply insufficient enthusiasm for it.)

What are the factors that frustrate aggressive economic reporting (AER)? Not surprisingly, we came up with a host of them:

  1. The structure and ownership of the media (as emphasized by Mintz).

  2. The failure (disinclination?) of editors and publishers to reward and punish reporters in ways conducive to AER.

  3. For the printed press in particular: editors and publishers misunderstanding why their publications are in trouble and turning to quick fixes antithetical to AER (Shanahan stressed this point).

  4. Young reporters inadequately prepared—in terms of knowledge, skill and perhaps temperament—for AER.

  5. Libel law and the financial threat it poses.

  6. Co-optation: the closer you get to your subjects, the more sympathy you may develop for their point of view, the less aggressive you may become. Or, as I put it, referring to my own career: “there may be such a thing as spending too much time at the Harvard Business School.”

  7. The difficulty and expense of doing good aggressive reporting of any variety.

What about Parker’s thesis? How much of a factor are narrative frames and the dramatic change he says they’ve undergone from the golden days of the “muckraking era,” when AER allegedly had an impact it can’t match today? Here I offer my own guess: not much.

They may be a factor to the extent that today’s audience is more receptive to the rough-and-tumble, self-interested nature of markets and private enterprise than it was at the turn of century. If the audience believes more in private enterprise, it would quite naturally be less stirred by AER of the Ida Tarbell variety, deriving as it did so much of its oomph from chronicling the profit-maximizing machinations of Rockefeller and his cronies.

But as David Warsh pointed out in our panel discussions, government now plays a far bigger role in the economy than it did a century ago. So maybe companies simply can’t get away with as much as they could back when, and AER doesn’t provoke as much outrage because it doesn’t turn up as much outrageous behavior.

There are other reasons to doubt that changing narrative frames are a major obstacle. Consider, by contrast, another reason: the pervasive skepticism of our era. It is not only, as Daniel Schorr noted early on, that our audience is skeptical of journalists, but that it has, arguably, become as generally skeptical as we ourselves. In that sense, our audience’s narrative frame—generalized skepticism—may now be more coincident with ours, not less, as Parker’s analysis suggests.

In 1995, Morton Mintz compiled a list for The Washington Monthly of publicly available, but widely neglected, economic exposés: for example, presumably shocking military expenditures by the billions. But shocking to whom? Were today’s audience made aware of them, it might well say: “What else is new?” Which may well be why editors ignored the information.

Finally, two last overarching reasons that I think frustrate AER.

The penultimate factor: there’s too much else to occupy our attention. In business lingo, it’s called a lack of “mental shelf space” or “mind share.” Clearly, an infinitude of ideas and information vie for the public’s finite amount of consciousness. To the extent that information about economics is often technical, numerical and counter-intuitive—in short, forbidding—why should a consumer of news master economics sufficiently to appreciate long, serious, aggressive stories about it? Might she have too much else to keep an eye on?

By extension, why should a journalist make a major investment in learning enough to pursue AER?

(This explains my own niche: trying to demystify economics so the audience doesn’t feel intimidated by it, and with luck, might even become more interested in, and responsive to, AER.)

The last factor, as Eileen Shanahan explained, is that serious journalists face an increasingly competitive market, and a competitive market doesn’t automatically produce AER. To put it plainly, people don’t necessarily buy what’s good for them, whether it’s tobacco, cheesecake, or Ricki Lake.

At long last, then, our panel’s list of recommendations (or, as David Warsh put it, how we would propose “to raise a next generation of Morton Mintzes and Eileen Shanahans:”)

  1. “The Kovach/Shanahan Shame Strategy.” At the very start of our discussions, Shanahan proposed a “conference of shame,” to which top editors and publishers would be invited, and at which they would be:

    • Confronted with their lack of AER.

    • Persuaded that they’ve misdiagnosed their business troubles in attributing them to the public’s lack of enthusiasm for AER.

    • Forced to acknowledge the shameless quality of the local news programming on stations owned by their parent corporations; have Max Frankel speak at such an event; show clips of crime coverage on Katharine Graham’s eponymously call-lettered WKAG.

  2. “Polls Apart.” Poll editors and journalists within newsrooms to find out if perhaps they underestimate each other’s zeal for AER.

  3. “Give Mort a Merit Raise.” Push news organizations (or others) to reward AER.

  4. “Cover the Coverage.” Maintain a vigil with respect to AER (or the lack of it) in various venues. e.g.

    • Nieman Reports and similar publications;

    • Newspapers and TV. (Every journalist at the conference, for instance, might do a story on a scrupulous newspaper owning an unscrupulous TV operation in her or his local market);

    • A PBS special or regular program, funded through the Nieman Foundation.

  5. “Publishers’ Clearinghouse.”

    • Encourage a variety of ways for news organizations to share information about good AER, maybe even share the AER itself.

    • Create a job at, say, AP, devoted to the dissemination of such information.

    • Help journalists learn of information already available (on Web sites such as David Burnham’s and several Eileen Shanahan mentioned in her Nieman Reports piece prior to the conference).

  6. “The Watchdog Coalition.” Just as the Christian Coalition does its work, school board by school board, we might mount a grass-roots effort aimed at high school and college newspapers and journalism schools to help teach and encourage AER, perhaps by:

    • Creating AER how-to teaching materials in print, video or CD-ROM. The journalistic community could do something as simple as taping how the judges select each year’s Pulitzers, interviewing the finalists to hear how they did their work.

    • Creating recruiting materials to fire up the most aggressive, able kids out there.

  7. And last but not least,

  8. “The Marder Daily Planet, The Nieman Evening News.” Create more nonprofits, along the lines of PBS, NPR, The Nation, Mother Jones and Andre Schiffrin’s The New Press.

 


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