Time magazine recently offered some notable journalism. A 14-page investigative report -- "Big Money and Politics: Who Gets Hurt?" -- provided extensive coverage of how government decisions really get made in the nation's capital. The cover story, by Donald Barlett and James Steele, was terrific.
But the mass media's response to the new expose was dismal.
Barlett and Steele don't bother with the fluff and psychoblather that dominate political reporting. They bypass the styles and personal traits of politicians. Instead, in the Feb. 7 issue of Time, the two journalists illuminate a process that normally remains in shadows. Money doesn't talk. It screams. And it gets heard.
The crux of the real story is that "Washington extends favorable treatment to one set of citizens at the expense of another," Barlett and Steele write. For those with megabucks behind them, the doors swing wide. For others, the portals of democracy are unlikely to open more than a crack. "If you know the right people in Congress and in the White House, you can often get anything you want. And there are two surefire ways to get close to those people: Contribute to their political campaigns. Spend generously on lobbying."
As a case study of how big money purchases big favors, Time devotes several pages to shrewd efforts by Carl Lindner, the chair of Chiquita Brands International. He poured a few million dollars into the coffers of key politicians in Washington, while U.S. trade policies vital to his firm's banana fortunes hung in the balance.
People who send large checks to politicians and top lobbyists "enjoy all the benefits of their special status," Barlett and Steele explain. For example: "If they make a bad business decision, the government bails them out. If they want to hire workers at below-market wage rates, the government provides the means to do so. If they want more time to pay their debts, the government gives them an extension. If they want immunity from certain laws, the government gives it."
Meanwhile, lacking deep pockets, most Americans "pick up a disproportionate share of America's tax bill ... pay higher prices for a broad range of products, from peanuts to prescription drugs ... pay taxes that others in a similar situation have been excused from paying ... are compelled to abide by laws while others are granted immunity from them..."
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The well-documented account of "Big Money and Politics" couldn't be more timely. As Barlett and Steele note, "In this presidential election year, companies and industries that hope for special treatment in the new decade are busy making their political contributions and their connections."
The fact that such intrepid journalism made a splash in Time magazine is encouraging. But other media -- including wire services, big daily newspapers and broadcast networks -- failed to pick up on the superb cover story. Days later, no interview with Barlett or Steele had aired on any major TV or radio outlets. (One segment was apparently in the works for CNN, also owned by Time Warner.) In effect, national media reacted with a yawn.
Compare that non-response to what happened in mid-December -- eight months after the Columbine High tragedy -- when Time printed a cover story about videotapes made by the young killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The night before publication, CNN aired an interview with Timothy Roche, the Time reporter who had seen the videos. Within hours, interview footage of him appeared on dozens of local TV newscasts across the country. But that was just a start.
The day that the magazine went on sale, ABC's "Good Morning America" featured a long interview with Roche. ("Good to have you here," host Charles Gibson greeted his guest. "I was just reading your excerpts. It strikes me these boys were psychopaths. But your impression?") Simultaneously, on NBC's "Today" show, Katie Couric discussed the same subject at length with another Time reporter, Nancy Gibbs. Later in the day, CNN repeatedly aired portions of its interview with Roche, while CNBC used tape of both Roche and Gibbs.
Not to be outdone by commercial shlockmeisters, National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" devoted a segment that evening to an interview with Roche, who reprised his description of the killers' videos.
"At times you think they must be high on drugs," he said, "and at times you think they must be evil or possessed."
That's how you might view the gatekeepers who decide which stories should reverberate in the national media's echo chamber.