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