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Stories the media miss.

The Big Four newspapers neglect important news that affect you directly

Many say they couldn't take another of the endless, lurid dispatches from Tonya Harding's skating rink, or the daily rehashes of John Bobbitt's involuntary loss of a body part. Others say they hate newspapers because they're too negative, tearing down reputations and exploiting victims to make an easy buck. Or the press just doesn't get it right because it's in the bag for somebody--its sources, liberals, whoever.

But as a long-time Washington reporter, I've learned that the great problem of newspaperdom's Gang of Four--The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal--isn't just that they devote too much space to tales of sex, mayhem, and other junk food. Their sin, rather, is omission: the nonreporting, burial, and trivialization of the news that citizens need--and to which they are damn well entitled.

The papers have a sharp eye for stories with zero effect on the lives of ordinary people, stories that sprawl across acres of newsprint and distract reporters from work that's less glitzy and more relevant. The Big Four, for example, almost completely missed the Savings and Loan mess--labeled the "biggest white-collar swindle in history" by then-Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. And they did a miserable job informing Americans about how a single-payer health plan not only works well in Canada, but would have saved our country hundreds of billions of dollars. Indeed, it's an everyday matter for the press to fail to provide sufficient information about government's successes and failures. Yet this information is crucial to the health of our democracy, and unlike infotainment about Tonya Harding and John Bobbitt, it profoundly affects the average person.

With tax time almost upon us, you may be interested in one example, brought to you by none of the Big Four. In a disturbing report last June 15, the General Accounting Office found that the Internal Revenue Service had a "lack of fundamental record keeping . . . inconsistent with record keeping requirements placed on taxpayers i supporting their returns."

Take two taxpayers who together owed the government $134,000 that the IRS didn't collect while they were getting the multi-million dollar refunds to which they were entitled Without first collecting the $96,000 that on owed, the GAO report declared, the IRS sent him a check for $13.4 million. The second tax payer was even luckier. Before he could pay hi $34,000, the IRS cut him a check for $21.8 mil lion. And the GAO found systematic problems in all the accounts--$5.5 billion worth--on which the IRS does its calculations manually. One taxpayer received a refund of $1,065,303. Later he also received an automated refund, calculated at only $465,995. Had he not returned the second check that money might well have been lost to the government.

In a sampling of 45 manually calculated returns, the IRS "improperly and inconsistently" overcharged or undercharged the interest owed in 16--more than one in three. IRS records showed $58 billion in credits as of Sept. 30, 1993, although its 1993 fiscal year financial statements listed only $39 billion in credits--a discrepancy of $19 billion.

Another GAO report released the same day found similar deficiencies in the financial management of the other principal revenue-collecting agency, the Customs Service. "Customs didn't exercise adequate accountability and stewardship over tons of illegal drugs and millions of dollars of cash and property seized or used in its enforcement efforts," the GAO said. In three out of eight of the undercover operations the GAO audited, "some amounts of drugs or currency were not reliably accounted for." The GAO sent copies of both reports to all major news organizations. But the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times printed not a word.

Indefensible reporting

The IRS and Customs Services, unfortunately, are hardly the only government agencies that escape the papers' watchful eyes. In 1992 the Navy sought $17 billion over 12 years to build 350 more D-5 nuclear missiles for its submarine fleet and for flight testing. The principle rationale was that D-5s are more accurate than the C-4s they would replace. More accurate by how much? A mere 150 meters--about the distance between the chairs of the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate. For a weapon that is 7.4 times as destructive as the bomb that leveled Hiroshima, what's a few hundred feet here or there? And is the difference really worth $17 billion?

The Navy had an informed, resolute foe in Senator Dale Bumpers, an Arkansas Democrat. Year after year on the Senate floor, he has launched thoroughly-researched, lonely and doomed appeals for cutbacks in Pentagon follies. In 1992, for example, Bumpers sponsored an amendment that would have saved at least $12 billion of the $17 billion the Navy requested. Having "thousands of warheads and hundreds of missiles that we cannot use [is] the most incredible thing I have ever seen," Bumpers told the Senate.

But the efforts to restrain the Navy were easily defeated, mostly by the usual suspects: the professed fiscal conservatives. "I have enough sense," Bumpers went on to admit, "to know that nobody is paying much attention to this debate."

Nobody outside the government could pay much attention--unless they chanced to catch his powerful oratory on C-Span, as I did--because the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times paid no serious attention whatever. Not in 1992, not in 1993, not in 1994.

Experts who follow the work of Pentagon reporters for the Big Four say it's been years since they've done solid investigative reporting on wasteful weapons procurement, or since these papers have even published a full, prominent report on such an investigation done by someone else. It is easier, of course, for the papers to report the political back-and-forth over defense spending. And it's tough work to go out and discover first-hand how well a weapon system is actually working, and whether the contractors are using subtle financial machinations to bilk the taxpayers. But that is just what the Big Four ought to be doing all the time.

Last June 22, Senator Charles Grassley (Rlowa) tried to block a direct payment of $348 million to McDonnell Douglas Corp. to settle its claims on a fixed-price contract for C-17 transports. He pointed out that the settlement would downgrade critical range and payload specs for the fourth time while including $234.5 million for a claim which was later found by the Air Force's contracting officer to be groundless. He also cited an unusually caustic GAO report--"Military Airlift: C-17 Settlement Is Not a Good Deal"--that bluntly challenged the legitimacy of McDonnell's claims.

Who cared? Not the Post, Times, or Journal. And not the Los Angeles Times, even though McDonnell assembles the C-17s in nearby Long Beach, Calif.

As a potential budget-buster, the ongoing F-22 "stealth" fighter program is hard to beat. The Air Force wants at least $70 billion for F-22s--$162 million a piece. Do we need them? Not according to the GAO. It said that the Air Force could upgrade its F-15s at relatively small cost to meet any foreseeable realistic threat through the year 2014. Last year, reporter Steve Kroft had a cynically revealing conversation with senior Lockheed Corp. executive James Blackwell. The F-22 program 'would employ 100,000 workers in 44 states, as in 88 senators,' Kroft said. 'We want the senator or congressman in that district to know that he is a part of the F-22 team," Blackwell responded. Kroft works for "60 Minutes." The Big Four papers have done no remotely comparable reporting on the F-22. When The Post ran a story on the GAO report, it did so months after Defense Week did.

Given the immensity of Department of Defense budgets--currently $252 billion--it's amazing how little the press digs for stories of the inevitable waste, fraud and abuse. With money so tight for social needs, hard-nosed investigative reports on the Pentagon are even more essential than in the 1980s, when they were briefly fashionable. Yet by neglecting such investigations, the press--starting with the Big Four--makes it a cinch for politicians to divert public concern to the relatively piddling outlays for the National Endowment for the Arts, public broadcasting, and the like.

Conventional wisdom has ruled the day on other great issues as well. While the Big Four ran countless pro-GATT columns and editorials, the reporting was mostly a melange of dreary day-to-day process developments, recycled official policy statements, and pro-GATT arguments made by multinational corporations and their bipartisan allies in the White House and Congress. (Allies, by the way, in whom they invest huge amounts of money.) This was decidedly not the kind of substantive reporting that presents pros and cons fairly and fully.

GATT will profoundly affect tens of millions of Americans; untold numbers will see their jobs exported, even if others will benefit. GATT empowers the proposed World Trade Organization in Geneva to decide, in secret tribunals, that numerous federal and state laws regulating consumer, environmental and workplace safety are illegal. In the WTO any two countries--even two rotten little dictatorships--could outvote the United States, should they want to. Yet none of this ever really sunk in with the public--primarily because of major nonfeasance by the mainstream press.

Last October and November, Senate Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) held seven days of hearings on GATT. At one, two leading law professors, Laurence Tribe of Harvard and Bruce Ackerman of Yale disputed a major constitutional issue: whether GATT was a treaty, and not a mere trade agreement requiring a majority vote in both houses. And Sir James Goldsmith, a famed conglomerateur cum European Parliamentarian, had a grim warning for Western countries, including the United States: GATT would further encourage corporations to build manufacturing plants in low-wage Third World nations, boosting profits for themselves while inflicting unemployment, misery, and instability in the West."

The seven days of hearings got gavel-to-gavel coverage on C-SPAN, some substantive coverage in The Washington Times, but no real coverage whatsoever in the Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, or the Post. This was at a time when Congress was recessed, and there was almost no other news to report from Capitol Hill.

Before Congress voted on GATT many other important events went uncovered in the news columns of the Big Four. Take two extraordinary letters sent to President Clinton. In one, the attorneys general of 30 states protested incursions on their sovereignty that the secret WTO tribunals would make. In the other, leaders of 51 news and media organizations denounced the secrecy and inaccessiblilty of WTO deliberations as "an affront to the democratic traditions of this nation." Here, obviously, the Big Four were not above slighting their brethren.

Not until after Congress approved GATT did any of the Big Four--the Wall Street Journal, in particular--publish reasonably informative, balanced stories. Thus they left most readers with almost no idea what GATT will actually do, and how it will affect their lives. They were put to shame by the Boston Globe, which carried several outstanding stories on GATT by Mitch Zuckoff in the months before Congress voted--when it mattered.

The Big Four's cavalier attitude can even affect presidential elections. In his first days as president in January 1981, Ronald Reagan created the Task Force on Regulatory Relief, choosing Vice President George Bush as its leader. Bush often boasted of its accomplishments. Yet none of the big four papers took a close, comprehensive look at what it actually was doing, or, when Bush ran for president seven years later, at what he had done.

Now look what the big papers didn't do when someone else did a definitive and damning study.

Public Citizen, Inc., founded by Ralph Nader, laid out its findings in a 52-page report and released it at a Capitol Hill news conference on October 1988, a few weeks before the election. The Bush-led Task Force has "undermined a system of health and safety standards that has taken America over 80 years to achieve," Public Citizen concluded.

In a summary press release, it found the documented record "brutal, indeed." For example, "[a]t least 40,000 deaths and one million injuries can be traced to the Administration's delay in requiring air bags and automatic safety belts in cars. Hundreds of thousands of infants were fed nutritionally deficient formula while Bush and the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] delayed rules requiring testing of infant formula, and thousands of babies and young children suffered the serious and often fatal Reye's Syndrome disease while the Administration stonewalled rules to place warning labels on aspirin products linked to Reye's Syndrome in children."

The press conference sign-up sheets lack the signature of a single reporter from The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal. Their news columns carried not a word. To what should have been their acute embarrassment, the Los Angeles Times alone carried the story.

Finally, several weeks after Bush won the 1988 election, the Chicago Tribune finished an extensive investigation of its own. Its conclusion: "President Reagan's emphasis on deregulation has left millions of workers vulnerable to death and serious injury in the workplace. As Vice President, Bush has been a chief architect of that drive." This assault on the regulatory apparatus intended to protect human life somehow didn't qualify as news fit to print in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal.

I'm not just making a pro forma bow to the Big Four when I say that they regularly do essential, even superb reporting on all sorts of issues that matter. Any fair-minded reader knows this. Rather, I'm making a point that I could pound home with dozens upon dozens of additional examples, were space available: These big papers get by with too many inexcusable omissions of great consequence.

The Big Four's blind eye on the work of government does more than leave the public ignorant. Without solid reporting on the government's work, bad policies are slow to be eliminated and the good ones are not emulated. Those who suffer under the old practices continue to, and everybody's money is wasted.

It's self-evident that whenever the Big Four turn a blind eye to misgovernance--by large corporations and other sources of power as well as by government--they leave the public ignorant and disarmed. But they also let bad policies and bad practices fester, put health, safety, and lives at risk, erode public trust, and squander everyone's money. This may be self-evident, too, but it's all the incentive the papers should need to do better.

Morton Mintz was a Washington Post reporter for nearly 30 years and is a former chair of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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Title Annotation:underreporting of important stories by 'New York Times,' 'Wall Street Journal,' 'Los Angeles Times,' and 'Washington Post'
Author:Mintz, Morton
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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