Strange bedfellows: Journalists as corporate shills
By MARK SCHAPIRO
Maybe it's because so many reporters are in bed with the rich and powerful.
NEW YORK —
When you make your living as an ostensible muckraker, you better be careful where you step -- as John Stossel learned to his cost. Last week, the ABC News correspondent found himself stung by the target of his own attempted sting. Stossel, who has lately shifted his undercover operations from consumer reporting to a series of pro-corporate and anti-environmental ABC specials, was lured into a trap — one that he himself might have designed under different circumstances — by his latest target.
Stossel, working on a special he dubbed "Junk Science," had been hoping to debunk the work of Dr. Grace Ziem, who specializes in treating medical ailments resulting from exposure to environmental toxins. Instead, Ziem, tipped off to the Stossel sting, invited two reporters from the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post to a Baltimore hotel, and accused Stossel and two associates of illegally taping her medical consultations with two of Stossel's ABC colleagues. The two associates had visited her complaining of symptoms which she attributed to "chemical sensitivity" — a reaction to the vast cocktail of synthetics used to produce household paints, cleansers and countless other products that can cause health problems in susceptible individuals.
Stossel planned to use the recordings in the latest of a series of reports that the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has characterized as "biased against consumers and environmentalists." Instead, he now faces felony charges resulting from Maryland's requirement that both parties involved must assent to a tape recording.
The tip that clued Dr. Ziem into Stossel's bungled sting came, appropriately, when Stossel made a public pitch to corporate interests, as reported in the feisty Washington, D.C.-based newsletter Corporate Crime Reporter. Two weeks before the sting, one of Ziem's patients had read a report in the newsletter about an appearance Stossel made in early September before the Federalist Society, a group of conservative lawyers. According to the Reporter, at the meeting Stossel talked up his upcoming projects — on "junk science," "freeloaders" and "the permanent government," all favorite conservative fodder — and made a pitch for corporate sponsors: "I certainly would encourage any of you who knows somebody who buys advertising on television to say 'please buy a couple of ads on those Stossel specials.'"
"A pitch for sponsors is generally not what an investigative reporter does," observes Jeff Cohen, director of FAIR. "But Stossel's reputation preceded him into that room — his attacks on environmental, consumer activist, and regulatory agencies got into that room way before he walked in. He's famous for being the reporter who 'champions the overdog.'" According to FAIR, two producers on Stossel's specials quit because, they say, he refused to accept information counter to his thesis about government regulation.
The Stossel case reveals how reporters seemingly in search of "the truth" all too often are compromised by financial and personal connections with the very people and organizations they are covering. Such ethical problems are explored in tonight's Frontline special, "Why Americans Hate the Press," on which I worked as a reporter.
Stossel's humiliating counter-sting occurred too late to make it into tonight's show. But if it had, we might have pointed to the $11,000 speaking fee that he received two years ago from the American Industrial Health Council — a group that includes such companies as Du Pont, Pfizer, Proctor & Gamble and Squibb, all of which have a vested interest in many of Stossel's assaults on government regulation.
And Stossel is not alone. Many of the most famous members of the D.C. press corps -- the true power elite of American journalism -- accept high-paying corporate speaking engagements and have direct personal ties to the political candidates. The top echelon of Washington political reporters — Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, George Will, Andrea Mitchell and many others whose heads appear daily on the screen — receive from $10-$30,000 (in Cokie's case) per appearance from industry groups like the National Association of Realtors, the American Hospital Association, the Public Relations Society of America and the Mortgage Bankers Association. The sensitivity of this issue was demonstrated last November, when ABC's Cokie Roberts, informed that her paid appearance in front of the Public Relations Society of America might include audience questions about her speaking fee, withdrew at the last minute (she was replaced by NBC's Andrea Mitchell).
Over the last 18 months, all three networks, in an effort to combat what ABC News Vice President Richard Wald termed "the appearance of conflict of interest," have imposed guidelines that prohibit their correspondents from taking speaking fees from profit-making enterprises or groups representing those they may report on.
But the real compromises lie deeper -- in corporate sponsorship that defines the very parameters of what is considered acceptable discourse. Take the pundit talk shows, where a parade of center-to-right-wing talking heads appear each week to engage in what passes as political debate. From "This Week with David Brinkley" to "The McLaughlin Group," two corporate sponsors predominate: General Electric and Archer Daniels Midland, two of the biggest corporate recipients of subsidies, tax breaks and government contracts in the country.
Is it really a surprise, given this fact, that these shows are more like political circuses than political debates? That histrionic posturing, featuring heat-filled disputations of political minutiae, fills the vacuum where genuine ideological discussion might otherwise exist? That television rarely challenges the abuses of corporate power? And that such progressive populists as Jim Hightower and Ralph Nader have routinely failed in their efforts to obtain backing for a political television show with a truly left-wing perspective?
Stossel is feeling the heat right now for his allegedly biased reporting, but there's a whole new career field waiting for him. Perhaps he should consider punditry.
Mark Schapiro is a frequent contributor to Salon.
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