The Financial Pages

Following on from the last N&C on the way the Bush administration listens to developers rather than to environmental scientists in its own agencies – there is a post on corruption, and the history of attempts to limit the effects of money on political culture at Cliopatria. It is highly frustrating to see the open, unembarrassed acceptance of the role of money in politics in the US, and to see how little that changes, what a non-issue it is, how easily it keeps going, how cheerily everyone accepts it. Bribery and corruption are usually considered bad things, but the fact that huge corporations give enormous wads of cash to US political campaigns and parties is, for some reason, just taken as normal. The wads of cash are called ‘donations’ instead of ‘bribes’ and that makes all the difference. But they’re not donations, they’re quid pro quos, and everyone knows it. Yet no one cares. It’s very odd, and it’s maddening.

There is a very good article by Jonathan Chait in the New Republic last November that does something to explain the lack of outrage. The article is about bad press coverage in general, rather than about corruption, but the last section deals with both – and needless to say, they are closely entangled: the corruption survives and thrives on massive public ignorance and indifference. It seems reasonable to think that if more people were more aware of the matter, there would be a lot more pressure to do something about it. To, in fact, stop it.

Republicans now expect lobbyists to support them all the time, even on issues of ancillary concern. In return, Republicans will take unpopular positions on issues like the environment and health care that benefit those same lobbyists. Yet this enormous shift, which impacts much of the domestic agenda, has not been woven into the narrative of political journalism. That omission, too, stems from the strange conventions of Washington reporting. It’s not that journalists fail to report on business influence; it’s just that such reportage tends to get segregated. One place it lands is the lobbying beat…It’s not that the press is shilling for Wall Street fat cats. It’s that money in politics is its own, distinct beat with its own, dedicated reporter (or set of reporters).

One is tempted to mutter about want of nails and wars being lost. Such a trivial reason, for such an important matter. The way jurisdictions are carved up among reporters helps to account for why political corruption is not a front page issue.

Another enclave of superb, but underexposed, coverage about the relationship between lobbyists and policy is the financial press. The Wall Street Journal, for example, has covered the nexus between K Street and the GOP particularly well. And shortly after the 2002 elections, the Post business section ran a terrific piece observing that “it’s payback time for the distributors and other business groups whose pent-up demands for policy changes, large and small, will soon burst into public.” The reason financial reporters can be so blunt, and therefore accurate, is that they could not do their job–conveying information about which businesses are succeeding in winning legislation that will impact their bottom line–if they didn’t convey the unvarnished truth. Political reporters play by a different set of rules. If a story like that ran on page one, it would have to be filtered through the lens of “evenhandedness”–“Democrats charge that Republicans are carrying water for their donors; Republicans disagree”–even if one side were demonstrably wrong. That’s why the practice of unbiased reporting, as journalists understand it, can actually impede the truth.

Isn’t that interesting. Just read the financial pages, and all will become clear. As a matter of fact, my brother told me that about the New York Times’ financial pages many years ago. Now, if only someone could persuade the political reporters to quote their colleagues on the financial beat…mabe word would begin to get out.

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