Media Beat, Oct. 11, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

'Big Business' Gets a Free Ride

''Big government'' has emerged as one of the most reviled villains of American political rhetoric. On Capitol Hill and the campaign trail -- and in routine media discourse -- the scourge of large government is self-evident and menacing.

In contrast, we rarely hear warnings about ''big business.'' The fact that some giant companies keep expanding their size and power is accepted as beneficial at best, a mixed blessing at worst. The dangers of ''big business'' are apt to get short shrift.

Why the wide gap in perceptions?

For decades, news outlets have been hammering government -- from city halls, county boards and state legislatures to Congress and the White House. Under the glare of media spotlights, government can look awful -- with defects ranging from chronic inefficiency to notable corruption.

Small wonder that many Americans are convinced the public sector is dysfunctional and perhaps downright evil.

The private sector, however, generally eludes media scrutiny. Its activities are ordinarily assumed to require little accountability, much less approval, from the public.

Although they can affect our lives as much as government actions do, major decisions by big-asset firms are usually relegated to the financial press or to the business sections of mainstream newspapers and magazines. Reporting tends to focus narrowly on prospects for corporate profits.

Ironically, while we keep hearing that bloated entitlements for health care and Social Security are out of control, the ''big government'' tag is not applied to an agency that spends nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars each day. The Department of Defense seems to be immune from sustained media criticism for being too big or too expensive.

Not coincidentally, the Pentagon is a cash-cow customer for many Fortune 500 companies. Some of them -- such as General Electric and Westinghouse -- have huge investments in media. Plenty more of them are high-spending advertisers, as well as moneyed contributors to politicians who selectively lambaste ''big government.''

On ''NBC Nightly News,'' anchor Tom Brokaw has presented ''The Fleecing of America'' -- a regular feature on ''how your government is wasting your money.'' Don't hold your breath for NBC (owned by GE) to do regular reports on ''how corporate America is ripping you off.''

Scandals in the private sector, like the S&L debacle, are often under-covered -- as taxpayers and consumers lose billions. Meanwhile, broadcast and print media fixate on relatively petty government scandals, like congressional check-bouncing.

Even news accounts of polls skew our attention in one direction. Polling questions commonly measure disapproval of government waste, graft and deception -- but rarely touch on private-sector waste, fraud and abuse. For example, the private health insurance industry is one of the biggest -- and most costly -- bureaucracies in our country.

Two years ago, the Associated Press conducted a poll with questions like, ''What percent of the federal budget do you realistically think could be cut as wasteful?''

But we don't often hear similar queries to gauge public discontent with big business, such as: ''Are corporate profits and CEO salaries excessive? What percentage do you think could be redirected toward employee wages, job training, safer working conditions or environmental protection?''

Reporters and editors do provide a valuable public service when they tenaciously dig behind facades of government virtue. Journalists should insist on ferreting out malfeasance among elected officials and their appointees.

However, it's much less common for newsrooms to encourage journalists to go after powerful corporations with similar zeal. The hazards are many.

Corporations can sue for libel. They can withdraw advertising -- and perhaps encourage other companies to do the same. And large corporate entities are run by people who tend to hobnob with media owners.

''The First Amendment rights belong to the owners,'' says Nicholas Johnson, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission. ''And the owners can exercise those rights by hiring people who will hire journalists who don't rock the boat, who don't attack advertisers, who don't challenge the establishment. That's a form of censorship.'' In truth, few ''successful'' reporters make a habit of tough reporting on corporations. For the most part, news media seem to be in denial about the importance of corporate power.

Yet, we live in a time when corporate policies have enormous effects on our lives -- from the workplace and the marketplace to the economy and the environment.

With news coverage casting aspersions on government agencies while letting corporations slide, it's easy for many politicians to denounce ''big government'' while winking at big business.

home | more articles | book a lecture
Cable News Confidential
My Misadventures in Corporate Media

Wizards of Media Oz
Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News
w/Norman Solomon
Common Courage Press

The Way Things Aren't
Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error
w/Steve Rendall et al, New Press

Through the Media Looking Glass
Decoding Bias and Blather in the News
w/Norman Solomon
Common Courage Press

Adventures in Medialand
Behind the News, Beyond the Pundits
w/Norman Solomon
Common Courage Press