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2017: Corporate Sins of Commission and Omission

Some of the most outrageous, even reckless performances of the year

A fireworks display in London marks the start of 2018. (Photo: Amanda Slater/flickr/cc)

A fireworks display in London marks the start of 2018. (Photo: Amanda Slater/flickr/cc)

As 2017 drew to a close, corporate media often presented some retrospective commentary on the most significant stories of the year. I would like to take the beginning of the new year as an occasion to award our media for some of the most outrageous, even reckless performances of the year.

My lead award goes for something the corporate media did not do—cover adequately the release of formerly classified documents exposing US mendacity at the end of the Cold War. Independent journalist Eric Margolis is one of the few columnist to highlight this perfidy: “All the western powers promised Gorbachev and Shevardnadze that NATO would not expand eastward by ‘one inch’ if Moscow would pull the Red Army out of East Germany and allow it to peacefully reunify with West Germany. This was a titanic concession by Gorbachev: it led to a failed coup against him in 1991 by Communist hardliners.”

In a period in our history when Russia and Putin are demonized almost daily, it is surely incumbent on the media at least to call attention to this startling story. Does it provide a context in which Russian activity in the Ukraine can be understood? At the very least these documents should occasion a more open debate about US relations with Russia. And whatever one thinks about the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, this must not become an occasion to undermine the possibility of negotiating steps to scale down the possibility of a nuclear confrontation. The most urgent foreign policy objective now should be a mutual US-Russia agreement to take both nations’ nuclear arsenals off their Cold War hair trigger status. Such an agreement is more likely if both governments and peoples come to recognize the role that both sides played in sustaining the Cold War.

Writing in American Conservative Andrew Bacevich expresses a concern that never seems to find its way into mass media broadcasts. “In today’s Washington, where Russophobia runs rampant, it has become fashionable to speak of a New Cold War, provoked by Putin’s aggressive actions. Yet if we are indeed embarking upon a new age of brinksmanship, we can trace its origins to 1990 when Putin was merely a disgruntled KGB colonel and we were playing the Soviets for suckers.”

Magic of the Market Award
This award goes to the corporation or industry making the most dangerous and or deceitful claim on behalf of markets. This year’s winners are the hospitals and medical centers that have joined the pharmaceutical corporations in treating health care as a commodity to be marketed for maximum profit. I don’t know if readers have noticed, but ads for cancer centers, orthopaedic care, and a variety of medical procedures have become pervasive in many media markets. Like the ads for drugs, these in effect seek to move specialist referrals away from the primary care physician to the patient “consumer.”

Yes, doctors don’t know everything, and patients should have multiple sources of information. Marketing campaigns for profit making hospitals are not the way to go. The doctors’ purported lack of up-to-date information is not a market failure. If doctors lack current information, both they and we should work to restructure their jobs and their access to appropriate peer journals. Neoliberals are so accustomed to thinking of markets as be all and end all of social relations that they resort to creating markets as the way to address the problem. If all I have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Many of these ads present heart-rending stories of miraculous medical procedures. American medicine does achieve some spectacular success, and I don’t doubt the skills and dedication of most who enter this profession. But these ads totally neglect discussion of who has access or the social features—such as inequality—that do so much to drive longevity figures down. The ads are probably aimed at attracting affluent, fully insured patients, a skimming off the top that will only add to economic inequality, which itself is a risk to health.

Corporate Hutzpah Award

Of all the many ads I have considered for this award, a Wells Fargo ad was by far and away the most outrageous. I first saw it during the World Series, but it has been shown in many other markets and time frames. Federal regulators last year ordered the San Francisco-based bank to pay $190 million in fines and restitution because its high pressure sales environment pushed employees to open 2 million deposit and credit card accounts without customers’ permission.

A woman receives a suspicious card activity alert from Wells Fargo. The bank has received a charge for a recent purchase from Doggy Lover's Warehouse. Her pet cat, feeling betrayed, glares at her with jealous rage as she tries to explain she would never shop at a place like that. Just in time, she gets a call from Wells Fargo about the strange purchase and is able to get the charge removed from her account. Nonetheless, her cat runs away in a jealous rage.

The ad is clever and amusing. The cat and the young woman play their roles to perfection. Its authors and designers are likely very gifted. The ad is part of a major media effort to win back the trust of customers. I wonder if Wells Fargo executives ever considered good and honest service as the best source of trust. And what if the talent and imagination of the ad designers were devoted to public transit, environmentally friendly housing, alternative energy, healthy diets…These are my dreams for 2018.

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John Buell

John Buell

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at jbuell@acadia.net

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