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Sunday Silence
Published on Monday, July 16, 2001
Sunday Silence
by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
 
Washington, D.C. politics revolve around issues related to corporate power -- from trade agreements to the minimum wage, from environmental protection to antitrust enforcement.

It stands to reason that conversations about politics in Washington naturally touch on these corporate power concerns, though of course many discussants may not talk about them in terms of "corporate power."

Or at least that is what would seem to be natural.

In the case of the Sunday morning political talk shows, however, it turns out that exactly the opposite is the case. The environment, labor rights, corporate welfare, the corporate crime epidemic and victims' right to sue corporate bullies go virtually unmentioned on the Sunday talk shows.

A new report issued by our colleagues Justin Elga and George Farah finds that topics loosely related to corporate power make up only 4 percent of the discussion topics on the talk shows. [see http://www.essentialaction.org/spotlight/report/index.html] Elga and Farah's conclusions are based on a review of every transcript of Meet the Press, Face the Nation, The Mclaughlin Group, and This Week aired between June 1995 and June 1996 and during the last six months of 1999.

The report also highlights the shows' near total exclusion of newsmaker guests from the ranks of labor, environmental, consumer, anti-corporate globalization or other public interest groups. The shows' almost exclusive preference is for presidential candidates, high administration officials or Congressional leaders -- though former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed was a frequent guest when he headed that right-wing lobby.

Horserace politics dominates the political gabfests, with corporate power shunted to the sidelines.

Elga and Farah's juxtapositions of what was and was not discussed on the shows are particularly revealing:

"During the June 1995 - June 1996 period," they note, "Colin Powell was the topic of Sunday morning conversation 47 times, corporate crime 0. Travelgate was an issue 27 times, whereas corporate welfare was mentioned once in a list of Clinton's accomplishments. The shows discussed O.J. Simpson 16 times, environmental matters 0. They talked about the Christian right 9 times, but never about consumer issues such as bank charges, phone charges, HMO abuses. ... Roundtable pundits argued about Oliver Stone's "Nixon" on 2 occasions but never discussed renewable energy, redlining or blockbusting. The shows never even mentioned the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, or foreign aid, but one show made the weather, complete with a guest from the National Weather Service, the center of discussion. Only a single program, This Week, so much as discussed the telecommunications bill and media mergers, which relate closely to the owners of these Sunday programs."

In the first six months of 1999, they report, "Aside from the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, the most discussed issue concerning corporate power was HMOs and a Patient Bill of Rights, ranked 26, well after Ken Starr, the Middle East peace process, the controversial Brooklyn art exhibit, Egypt Air Flight 990 and Jesse Ventura. The only other issues concerning corporate power discussed during the second half of 1999 were free trade with China and the Microsoft antitrust case. The Mclaughlin Group also devoted a segment of a single episode to urban sprawl. Instead of addressing consumer issues, environmental matters, corporate crime, the IMF, the WTO, labor rights or the minimum wage, shows devoted time to topics like the women's World Cup soccer victory, a moon landing tribute, Jerry Springer's possible senatorial campaign, a heat wave, Tina Brown's kickoff party for Talk Magazine, mail order brides, father's day, and football player Reggie White's religious views."

Elga and Farah don't have an answer for why this state of affairs is so, but they permit themselves some speculation.

Is it possible, they ask, that the silence on corporate power issues is related to the shows' sponsorship by the likes of General Electric and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)?

The shows' failed to mention -- let alone discuss -- that in 1996 ADM pled guilty to criminal price-fixing charges and agreed to what was at the time the largest antitrust fine ever. The ADM plea made banner headlines in the print press. Did the company's close ties to the Sunday shows have anything to do with their silence?

Is the Mclaughlin Group really likely to talk critically about GE -- say, about the company's controversial effort to block cleanup of the Hudson River of toxic PCBs -- given General Electric's sponsorship?

On the whole, the Sunday shows are excruciating to watch. They are full of bombast and self-interested posturing. They are the stuff of self-parody. Their national ratings are miniscule.

But the talk shows are watched by journalists and policymakers in Washington, and they work to frame news coverage and political debate. What they air, and don't air, does matter.

Their virtual exclusion of corporate power issues is part or the process by which the real business in Washington is handled with minimal public awareness, with public attention instead diverted to Gary Condit or other scandals or matters of minimal policy import.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor and co-director Essential Action. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

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