September 18th, 2008 19:25 EST
Business Journalism on the Wrong Track
(Transcript No. 33 of Del Marbrook`s Hot Copy, a weekly podcast series for The Student Operated Press.)
The majority of Americans are wage earners. They neither have their own businesses nor help run businesses. Their wages have been more or less stagnant for two decades while the cost of living has risen relentlessly. Now their jobs are being exported and their unions broken, and yet the business section of their newspaper doesn`t interest them as much as, say, sports or obituaries.
Something is wrong with this picture, something verging on hoax. We need to reexamine the history and function of business news, whether it`s the business section of a newspaper or the business segment of a telecast or even publications given over wholly to business.
As newspapers grew from muckraking and often scurrilous weeklies to staid metropolitan and regional dailies in the 19th Century it was thought that their readers would be primarily affluent and literate upper-class citizens, decision-makers. But as the country expanded westward a middle class was created, and this newly affluent and educated middle class was interested in money matters. But it was assumed, wrongly that money matters would never rate high on reader interest indices. As we discussed in the last segment of this series, that`s not true. Disasters and money rank Number One and Number Two among reader preferences.
Nobody foresaw a postindustrial age in which industry would subside or go overseas and a service economy would emerge. Nobody foresaw a time when the new middle class, which grew quickly after World War II, would come under attack by a corpocracy intent on cutting wages and expanding into overseas markets.
As time went on, you could get a certain amount of business news from your local newspaper, especially local business news, but if you wanted more specialized news, deeper reportage, you would read The Wall Street Journal and other publications devoted to business news. But not even these publications would help you make a killing in the stock market, because by the time they reported anything the insiders had already moved in and seized the opportunity. And that is as true now as it was in 1900.
Whenever journalists and their bosses talked about business news they talked about expanding it by adding more stock market coverage or more commentary or more foreign news, but they never addressed a fundamental truth: in a market economy like ours almost everything is business news. Beauty contests, horse races, sports, universities, defense, war, medicine, insurance "all these subjects are business subjects. And when newspapers, radio and television reported on labor-management disputes they never addressed a fundamental issue, which is, What is a moral, ethical profit margin? How much is enough? Because this issue was never addressed, the answer eventually emerged as a presumption that profit is essentially all you can get and then some. When you consider how churchgoing America is, how inclined we are to listen to preachers inveigh about values and abortion and stem cell research, it seems passing strange that we hear nothing about whether our society should even discuss a moral profit margin "how much, that is, owners, managers and shareholders should take and how much they should give workers. Why, in such a moralistic and self-righteous country, is this not a paramount issue? It`s not an issue because the press has never allowed it to become one, because the press is not supported by its readers, it is supported by its advertisers, and this is not an issue businesses wish to discuss. And, obviously, there is another reason. The press itself gets involved in labor-management disputes and seeks to say as little as possible about it.
By isolating business news into business sections and on-air segments American journalism has given the public the impression that business is a specialty, like sports or arts and entertainment. We have to be very careful about categories because they give us the illusion that we understand something simply because we have assigned it to a category. Simply because you know the name of something doesn`t mean you understand it. It`s rather like the mailman thinking he knows you because he knows which box belongs to you. He doesn`t know anything about you. He may have a nodding acquaintance, but that`s all.
Almost nothing ever appears on the front page of a newspaper or in any other section that is not a business story, including crimes, disasters and politics. That is because we are a money society. We are not a society that occasionally uses money the way we occasionally see the Yankees play the Red Sox. We are a society that is about money.
Perhaps even more significantly, if you consider how much influence the ideas of Ayn Rand have had on such contemporary money mavens as Alan Greenspan, the recently retired head of the Federal Reserve, we`re increasingly a society committed to Rand`s notion of enlightened selfishness, a notion that flies in the face of three major Biblical religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Why our religious leaders seem so complacent about this is another matter, which I`ll avoid for the sake of making the point that something is fundamentally wrongheaded about our approach to business journalism.
We need some revolutionary thinking about this, because pigeonholing business news prevents us from seeing our society in the kind of perspective that would enable us to do something about it. As the situation now stands, the only people able to do something about our society are the people who don`t want the rest of us to have any say at all.
The current election cycle offers as good an example as any of the kind of blindness being imposed on us by perpetuating the idea that business news is somehow different from news in general. We talk about health insurance, for example, as if it were a social issue, which it is. We talk about it as if it were a political issue, which it is. But we give only passing reference to it as a business issue, which is what drives the debate behind closed doors. Are we going to have health insurance for all of us because it is the right thing for a humane society to do, or are we going to have health insurance because it is an opportunity for the insurance industry, which maintains huge lobbies in Washington and every single state capital, to make even more money than it already makes? Once you couch the debate in terms of the insurance industry and money, the political blather that surrounds and drowns the issue falls away and we see the bares bones of the issue. But don`t count on the press to achieve that clarity for us. And that`s just the problem.
Another example is the response to Hurricane Katrina. There have been plenty of stories about how scandalously belated the Bush Administration`s response to the catastrophe was and still is. There have been plenty of stories about its politics, why for example the federal reponse was quicker in Republican Mississippi than Democratic Lousiana. There have even been conspiracy stories suggesting that ethnic cleansing is occurring in the wake of the hurricane, an effort, that is, to create a new city in which African-Americans have herded to the corners or even out of the city altogether. But there have been precious few stories about all the politicians, state and federal, who stood by and let the insurance industry write boilerplate into their policies that allows them to refuse to pay for flood and other kinds of damage that nobody can prove was caused beyond a doubt by the wind alone. Politicians and bureaucrats alike knew these dodgy policies were being written by tricky lawyers so that in the event of claims the insurer could avoid having to pay out, but only occasionally has the New Orleans tragedy been couched by the press in terms of a money scam.
For more than forty years we stood fast in a Cold War in which we claimed that a triumphant communism would be heartless and corrupt. But what did we envision for ourselves, for our capitalist future? Did we envision a piratical capitalism that would wring every last penny out of the working people, a capitalism that would put at risk our entire middle class in order to amass the capital it thinks it needs to compete globally, a capitalism that would wholly corrupt our government so that at the end of the day our politicians would do everything for big business and nothing for the rest of us?
If you have any doubt as to the extent to which business permeates every aspect of our lives, consider this: Google scans its e-mail users` inboxes to deliver advertising messages that seem relevant to the e-mail`s content. A company called Pudding Media in San Jose, California, is introducing an Internet phone service that will be supported by advertising related to what people talk about in their calls. Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress is considering giving telecommunications companies the right to introduce a multi-level system of charges for Internet access that would severely handicap individual and small Internet users.
In other words, every day and in every way business is trying to milk money from every civil right you assume you have because you are American. But the media persist in reporting your rights as one story and business as another, and that is simply a distorted view of what is actually happening. And the media persist in ignoring the shortsightedness of destroying the middle class on the one hand and bilking it on the other hand. Thomas Jefferson foresaw that corporations could corrupt the fledgling democracy he and his colleagues were trying to create. If he could have foreseen the extent to which Congress would put itself in the pockets of lobbyists he probably would have proposed Constitutional precautions
But, at the end of the day, this is only half the story. If by some miracle of enlightened business ethics we actually had a press willing to cast the stories that are our daily fare to reveal who profits and who is cheated, to reveal what is fair and what is piratical, we would still not have a press capable of such journalism, and so in my next segment I`ll talk about that.
You have been listening to Hot Copy. I`m Del Marbrook, and if you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at www.delmarbrook.com. For a business online degree find information you need.
For More Information: www.myspace.com/delmarbrook
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