Another Perspective

Corporate Scandal at the Networks

What network were you watching yesterday when George W. Bush gave one of the most critical speeches of our times?

By 7.10.02

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A few random thoughts, post-speech, on the crisis of capitalism:

1. What network were you watching when George W. Bush, standing soberly before that Wall Street crowd, gave one of the most critical speeches, not only of his presidency, but of our times? I was watching NBC, where, half way through the chief executive's response to the corporate scandals, "Today Show" anchor Ann Curry broke in to spare us any more of the substance. Fade to a Lincoln-Mercury commercial.

Quickly punching the remote, I found that, sure enough, Fox and CNN were staying with the speech all the way through. CBS and ABC, those guardians of the public interest, were, like NBC, also into commercials -- putting profits first, no doubt.

Does anyone else find something ridiculously shameless about this? In her follow-up coverage, NBC's Claire Shipman prattled about Bush's pro-business history and why that might present a political problem as he pushes his carefully measured effort to restore responsibility to corporate offices. Over at CBS, correspondent Wyatt Andrews, the objectivity cracking all over his unctuous countenance, was labeling Bush the "business partner-in-chief."

At Fox, praise the Lord, morning anchor David Anson asked an obvious question of Iowa's Republican Sen. Charles Grassley. He wanted to know if passing more laws was an appropriate response inasmuch as the thicket of extant laws may have contributed to corporate lawlessness in the first place. (Of course, slow-talkin' Charlie took so long to answer that I punched my remote again. I think he agreed with Anson's premise.)

Does it occur to anyone else, as it did to me, that for decades under network dominance we have been starved for Anson's question? Indeed, I can't remember when I've heard it from a TV journalist. On the contrary, most journalists, both electronic and print, act in symbiosis with those in government who would extend their coercive reach. Top prizes, including the Pulitzer, go to reporters whose efforts have prompted legislation.

2. Now, I happen to like Katie Couric -- even if she gets her facts wrong when debating Ann Coulter and regularly betrays an ignorance (not a bias) of how a free society and a free economy work. There's something deeply decent going on in her soul; and she does brighten up the morning. Being a champion of the subjective theory of value, I don't even quibble with her outsized salary.

But surely her multi-million-dollar contract to cohost the "Today Show" exists on a par with some of the corporate excesses her network's journalists love to reveal with such long faces? This for asking questions of luminaries that the folks in coffee shops and repair shop waiting rooms would also ask. Or for not asking them. Did Katie feel just a little pang of conscience when it was decided to dump Bush for the Lincoln spot? Does her circle of friends drive Lincolns? I'd like to know.

3. The Los Angeles Times did an editorial walkup to the Bush speech by inveighing against the president's inaction and unconvincing concern -- even before he gave the speech. Harken and Haliburton. Harken and Haliburton. The Times wants those company names, along with the president and vice president's role in them, impressed on your mind.

To be sure, Bush's calls for reform were carefully measured. But a little humility would seem in order given the government's long failure to fulfill its regulatory promise. The Times, clearly, would condemn him for saying too much or for saying too little. Government failure reflects badly on both parties, but couldn't the Times have mentioned the culture of moral lapse that the Clintonian era bequested us?

Remember how the impeached president skirted consequences of his misdeeds by questioning the definition of "is"? Did he not set the moral tone of the last decade, including the greedy graspers who were lionized on business magazine covers? I have met guys like that, business sharpies whose handshakes did not conduct the necessary moral current.

I have also known newspaper editors who would share the dais with President Clinton at industry dinners. Peas in an immoral pod. I have known editors who deny, notwithstanding the moral charge to their readers, the knowability of truth.

Come to think of it, the L.A. Times regularly, and straightfacedly, blamed "deregulation" for California's recent energy crisis. A reader could never discern in its pages the sophistication required to explain the moral hazard spawned by the only partial deregulation that in fact occurred.

And the Times would lecture Bush!

4. This was, in most ways, a magnificent speech -- magnificent because it was both contemplative and prescriptive; it was morally eloquent, sending a message not only to malefactors here, but to watchful leaders and enterprisers around the world who anxiously want the U.S. to remain the untoppled exemplar of free minds and free markets. What do you bet it's already half way down the media memory hole?

Footnote: Nobody (yet) has clobbered me for it, but in the final paragraph of my Monday posting re the LAX terrorist, I attempted some mordant humor that flowed from the difficulty local officialdom was having in defining terrorism. I said something to the effect that anything helping to re-elect Gov. Davis was an act of terrorism. Isolated, that comment makes me sound like a moral equivalence-pushing loon. Consider this self-correction.

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About the Author

K.E. Grubbs Jr. is director of the National Journalism Center and editor of TheReporter.us