American Journalism: A Class Act

Norman Solomon

Like most people,
American journalists are apt to look at the very rich with awe. These days, in a
society eager to condemn the Enron debacle, we might want to conclude that
decent standards ultimately prevail. But media censure comes down hard on
financial mismanagement, flagrant skullduggery, and collapse; not on zeal to
keep maximizing profits and riches. Unless they appear to be headed for prison,
frontrunners in money-mania derbies are good bets to remain media heroes. For
years, Enron’s leader Ken Lay’s acquisitions dazzled many reporters and media

Insatiable greed
is unlikely to cause bad press—journalists often cite enthusiasm for boosting
“net worth” as evidence of exemplary character—as long as they don’t get busted
for breaking major laws.

Coronated as
virtual geniuses at a frenzied pace during the dot-com boom, quite a few
investors and executives were quickly “worth” hundreds of millions or even more.
These “brilliant tacticians” of the business world were profiled in countless
splashy news reports.

Such profuse
adulation of the rich exists side-by-side with occasional media trashing of
individuals as overly piggish or personally flawed. A Newsweek cover
story, headlined “Rhymes With Rich,” raised eyebrows in August 1989 for its
harsh treatment of hotel mogul Leona Helmsley. But—far from faulting her for
being a billionaire in a country with millions of destitute people—the article
took Helms- ley to task for instances of personal unkindness.

The current Enron
scandal has already touched on many important issues. But if the firm had kept
scrupulous accounts instead of cooking the books, it might still be considered a
model corporate citizen. While Enron was riding high on Wall Street, national
media coverage was generally favorable, as the company gorged itself on
electricity privatization—heralded as “reform” and boosted by political
influence-leasing from California to India.

In 1993, Enron
wrangled an agreement with India’s state government of Maharashtra for a 695-
megawatt plant. “The Enron project was the first private power project in
India,” Arundhati Roy wrote in her book Power Politics. Lots of cash
lubricated the fix.

“Enron had made
no secret of the fact that, in order to secure the deal, it had paid out
millions of dollars to ‘educate’ the politicians and bureaucrats involved in the
deal,” Roy recalled. For India, the size of the scheme was unprecedented:
“Experts who have studied the project have called it the most massive fraud in
the country’s history.” The project’s gross profits were set to exceed $12

Not that such
massive gouging bothered U.S. media. On the contrary. For the journalistic
mainstream, privatization—whether in Western India or Northern California—was
beneficent. Ken Lay and the rest of Enron’s smart guys were ahead of the curve.

Reverence for the
super-rich pervaded America’s “newspaper of record” during the recent World
Economic Forum events in Man- hattan. Several dozen New York Times
articles breathlessly described chic interactions among top investors, business
executives, and government officials. Much was made of their notable willingness
to acknowledge that the world they endeavor to run has not been going too well.
Moving toward more enlightened self-interest, they recognized that global social
problems merit deep concern.

Meanwhile, the
reported in a number of stories, thousands of protesters were in the
streets, demanding economic justice. Those articles included snippets of quotes
with photos of creative-looking puppets and posters carried by demonstrators.

Naturally, people
who have fundamental problems with corporate agendas shouldn’t expect much
in-depth or sympathetic news coverage in U.S. mass media. So major outlets told
us little about 40,000 activists who converged on Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the
second annual World Social Forum.

In contrast to a
year ago, when the New York Times managed one paragraph on the World
Social Forum, this time the paper printed three news articles about the
gathering. But in this case, the Times accounts of the event appeared
with ascending levels of disparagement. By the time the paper got to its
February 7 wrap-up story, the world’s second historic grassroots summit in
Brazil was “more than anything a campaign stop for the country’s coming
presidential election.” In the end, the Times reported, “little of
substance was accomplished.”

The Washington
, which published a substantive news story about the World Social Forum
a year ago, its journalistic eyes were on Manhattan. The Post made a few
passing references to WSF—a brief wire-service dispatch and a single sniping
sentence under a New York dateline, reporting that in Porto Alegre a “world
conference on progressive alternatives to global capitalism has drawn 14,000
delegates and thousands of hangers-on.”     Z

Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is
The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media.