The Sport of Business/The Business of Sport in Media Ethics


Robert Jensen

It

is often asserted by conservatives, and widely taken as a fact by the general

public, that the American news media are “anti-business.” It’s a rather

silly claim, given the capitalist/managerial framework in which U.S. journalists

work, but it is understandable why right-wingers ride the claim for its

propaganda value in this very business-run society.

More

surprising is that many journalists believe their reporting is highly critical

of business. While they would reject the label “anti-business,” many do see

themselves and their ethical responsibilities as being tough on business. In

this essay, I want to point out just how impoverished that analysis is by using

an analogy to sports reporting. Through this issue we can see one of the most

serious moral failings of the contemporary news media — the inability to

challenge the centralized power of corporate capitalism.

Let’s

start with that conservative critique, which tends to go something like this:

Journalists come in two political shades, liberal and communist. The people who

now run newsrooms cut their teeth on the radicalism of the 1960s and hate

business. So, journalists unfairly and unethically take every opportunity to

bash corporations and the hard-working folks who run them.

This

is, on the surface, an odd claim, given that the news media are themselves

corporations. It is not clear why the people who own the American media would

hire and promote employees who have dedicated themselves to the destruction of

the system that enriches them. Despite this obvious problem with the argument,

conservatives continue to claim that journalists are anti-business.

While

there is some truth to one element of the claim — that is, journalists can

sometimes be mean to business people, like they can be mean to politicians,

celebrities and others — these critics miss the bigger picture and, therefore,

end up with a ludicrous conclusion. Journalists are not anti-business. They are

pro-business, not because of their own political inclinations but because of the

values of the system in which they work.

For

some reason, many people have trouble accepting this elementary point. An

analogy to sports journalists, where ideology is not so rigidly imposed and it

is easier to see the way the system works, might help.

Sports

and business are in many ways similar in American news media (I’m talking

specifically about newspapers, though most of this essay applies to radio and

television as well). Each has its own section in the newspaper, and news

concerning each sometimes spills over into the main news section of the paper.

Each has reporters assigned to the section, though general news reporters

sometimes cover related stories.

So,

let’s start by thinking about the day-to-day content of the sports section. Much

of the section is devoted to statistics and standings, the data fans want in

order to track their specific interests. There also is coverage of the day’s

events — stories about the personalities, games and matches that make up the

guts of the section. The paper also runs think pieces and trend stories about

various sports and the nature of sport. And, finally, there are columnists who

are given a fair amount of latitude to spout off about whatever they please.

On

any given day, in various parts of the section, there is likely to be criticism

of sports — of the league officials, owners, or specific players who have

committed various kinds of sins against the fans and the higher ideals of sport.

Sports writers, especially columnists, can be among the most vicious in a

newsroom, relentlessly going after their targets — including the rich and

powerful — with venom and glee. It would be ridiculous, however, to claim that

sports writers are anti-sports. They live and breathe a sports culture. They

write for a section devoted solely to that culture. They are subsidized in their

work by the very industry they cover (through press boxes, free food, easy

access to information, etc.). They are, without exception in my experience,

sports lovers. And, of course, readers and critics understand this. When

disgruntled readers argue with sports columnists, they don’t accuse them of

being anti-sports. They simply say, “You’re a jerk — you’re wrong about

that.”

Much

the same can be said of newspapers’ business coverage. The business section

includes lots of statistics and data (stock tables, etc.) and daily coverage of

personalities, companies, and deal-making. There is coverage of the business

world’s daily events (which corporations bought what, what earnings or new

products are anticipated, which CEO has quit, etc.). along with think pieces and

trend stories. Some of the stories can be critical of specific corporations or

individual owners. Some of the criticism can be annoying to the just-fired CEO,

or the company that would rather have the public (and peers) kept in the dark

about some of its problems. It can even be harsh, especially when a corporation

has given all business a bad name by egregiously ripping off clients or

consumers — although no business reporter or columnists ever writes with the

viciousness of a sports writer.

Likewise,

business reporters tend to live and breathe business culture. They write for a

section devoted solely to that culture. They are subsidized in their work by the

entities they cover through a huge PR industry that provides free

"information" on a massive scale. They are, without exception in my

experience, business lovers. And, just as the sports reporter almost never steps

back and asks, “Just what is going on with sports in this culture — what’s

the big picture?” so too the business reporter almost never steps back and

asks, “Just what is going on with capitalism in this culture — what’s the big

picture?” Sports reporters and business reporters are not critics of the

system; at best, they police its boundaries. They report on violations of the

rules; they don’t ask questions about the fundamental justice of the rules.

To

varying degrees, we all understand this about sports reporters, which is why no

one would ever think to label them anti-sports. This probably is because sports,

in some sense, doesn’t much matter — it’s just children’s games being played by

adults, albeit games that generate incredible profits, and take a lot of our

time. In many ways, sports supports the ideology of the culture, both in the

values it promotes — aggressive competitiveness and a focus on winning — and

in its equally important role in producing a passive, depoliticized population.

But sports is not at the core of the culture’s ideology. Capitalism is.

Everyone

understands the central importance to their well being of how an economy is

structured. Throughout the past two centuries, people have realized that the

economic system–particularly capitalism, in its increasingly concentrated

corporate form–under which they live can be detrimental to their well being.

People have been murdered, gone to jail, and been deported in struggles to

resist the injustices of their economic system. Throughout the past two

centuries, many people have realized that capitalism, especially in its

increasingly concentrated corporate form, is detrimental to their well being.

People have been murdered, gone to jail, and been exiled in a struggle to resist

the injustice of that economic system. Even though it may seem that, in the

post-Cold War era, capitalism has “won,” smart capitalists understand that

victory is always tentative. Today, working people and the unions that once

created a channel for working people’s power are on the defensive, but

thoughtful capitalists know how quickly that can change. Hence the need for

intense ideological control and indoctrination.

My

own view is that the overtly reactionary publishers and editors who clamp down

on any critical reporting, and the right-wing think thanks that attack even mild

attempts at critique, are actually working against their own purposes. As

corporate America continues to put the screws to Americans, eve n the most

indoctrinated (take, for example, the working-class people who might truly

believe that lowering the capital gains tax will create benefits that trickle

down to them) will see that the system is stacked against them. And if the

picture that the media paint of business is so overwhelmingly positive that it

cannot possibly be made to jibe with the experiences of working people, such

coverage actually will begin to work against business: The propaganda will be so

out of sync with people’s experiences that it will become less effective. (This

often happens, for example, on many large university campuses, where

administrators talk about being “student-centered” and students, who daily

encounter a bureaucracy that has no concern for them, don’t even bother to

laugh; they know it is meaningless PR talk.)

In

fact, having a business press as feisty as the sports press (while always, of

course, staying within the bounds of unquestioned support for the fundamental

system), would probably in the long run work in favor of business. The

appearance of serious criticism might help preserve the illusion of a democratic

society. All this leaves journalists in a tough spot. Reflexively, they want to

deny being anti-business because the ideology of objectivity precludes them from

being pro- or anti- anything. At the same time, journalists often think of

themselves as doing tough reporting on business. But, as I have argued above,

while journalists police the most visible, egregious violations of the rules,

they rarely question the rules themselves. Their tough reporting can land a

corrupt CEO in jail or result in a company being fined for an environmental

infraction, but it doesn’t highlight the basic questions about why we have

allowed corporations to acquire so much power and how the routine exercise of

that power creates and entrenches inequality.

The

ethical challenge for reporters is to make good on the watchdog function they

claim is central to the profession. The key question is, watching what or whom?

Journalists tend to see themselves as primarily watching government, which

historically has had the most power to abuse people in our society. In limited

ways, reporters do occasionally fulfill that role, though in certain arenas

(most notably foreign policy), reporters almost never challenge policy-makers.

We

need to ask, where does real power in this society lie? Where or who else should

journalists be watching? The answer, clearly, is where power is most

concentrated, which is in the corporations. That means not only reporting on

individual corporations, but reporting on the nature of the corporate system –

the ever-increasing power of corporations and the way they constrain ordinary

people’s lives, both at home and abroad.

Right

now, in an age of capitalist triumphalism, journalism has failed miserably at

that task. Rather than challenging corporate power, news outlets routinely

trumpet the great accomplishments of owners and managers. Claims about the

inevitability and universal benefit of markets go uncritiqued. Articulate

opponents of so-called “free” trade are treated as cranks. And the

inherently anti-democratic nature of corporations (which are, after all,

internally structured as top-down hierarchies with no pretense of democracy)

cannot be mentioned in polite company.

Journalists

have a moral choice to subordinate themselves to corporate power or to challenge

it. The institutional structure is set up for subordination; as in other

institutions in the culture, there are obvious rewards the come with following

power. But journalism is not yet so locked down that good work can’t be done.

It takes creativity, ingenuity and courage. The rewards rarely come in terms of

money or career advancement. But neither does one have to wait for the afterlife

for the reward of knowing that in the struggle of haves and have-nots, one made

the right choice.

Robert

Jensen, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is an associate professor of

journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

 

 

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