By Ralph Nader
Reporters at major newspapers and magazines are hard to reach by telephone. Today it is increasingly hard to converse with them about timely scoops, leads, gaps in coverage, and corrections to published articles. Their voicemail messages often tell you how rarely they check their calls and urge reaching them by email. Good luck getting through the email clutter, filters, and voluminous commercial pitches, etc. More importantly, email exchanges can’t compare with the quick back and forth of personal exchanges on the phone.
There are some fine reporters, like David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, Charlie Savage of the New York Times, and David Brancaccio of NPR, who do pick up their phones or promptly return calls. When I asked Fahrenthold why he responds to calls he replied that that was how he gets stories. Years ago, that would have been such an obvious explanation, as not to be uttered.
Citizen groups constantly have ideas and industry documents and materials they have obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that they are willing to share with reporters. But they too often cannot easily get through to key reporters. Some stop trying. They wonder why today’s media mavens do not replicate the reporting of their predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s. Their newsworthy reporting and editorializing helped mightily in the success with Congress by the emerging consumer, environmental, civil rights, and other reform groups. A better, safer country resulted from solid reporting on the drives for justice waged by citizen groups.
While hoping for more introspection by editors, TV producers, their reporters, and columnists, we are starting an online Reporters’ Alert. From time to time we will use Reporter’s Alert to present suggestions for important reporting on topics that are either not covered or not covered thoroughly. Just nibbling on the periphery won’t attract public attention or be noticed by decision-makers. Here are the first entries:
Massive billing fraud by profiteering businesses rips off of tens of millions of consumers and public insurers such as Medicare and Medicaid. Leading expert, Professor Malcolm Sparrow at Harvard University estimates some $350 billion a year is drained away just in the health care industry. Sarah Kliff of the New York Times is exposing the gouging of a few people but has not addressed the systematic, aggregate treatment this little prosecuted mega heist requires.
The Federal Reserve’s boastful near-zero interest rate policy is taking tens of billions of dollars a year from tens of millions of small savers with money in savings banks and money markets because these funds earn virtually nothing. This saps consumer demand, endangers pension funds requiring a reasonable rate of return to be solvent, and increases the inequality of incomes. It also does nothing to induce lenders to lower staggering interest charges on credit cards, payday, auto, and student loans.
You read about the federal government imposing sanctions seemingly everywhere around the world, on governments, on government officials, on any one group we don’t like. Broad sanctions in Russia, Iran, Syria, and North Korea don’t bother the plutocrats and oligarchs in these countries. They do, however, impose horrific costs and deprivations on innocent civilians. Just what are these sanctions, who enforces them (private banks?), and who evades or corruptly profits from them? Are they all legally authorized by Congress and when are they illegal under international law? Do the sanctions include medicines, water disinfectants, medical devices, food, and the fuel used by millions of ordinary people? Without detailed reporting on sanctions, readers, viewers, and listeners get endless general repetitions about sanctions. Citizens in a democracy need more and better information.
In these Covid-19 times, the auto and health insurance companies are making out like bandits. Traffic is down; so are collisions. People are postponing going to doctors and hospitals for customary treatment due to the heavy load of the Covid-19 pandemic. Where are the refunds, rebates, and lower premiums? There were some refunds last spring by auto insurance companies, but state regulators have largely been passive. Billions of consumer dollars are at stake that could be helping people make ends meet.
How about some attention on the corporate law firms that figure out the ways for their big-business clients to escape the law, advance weak enforcement, get sweetheart settlements, and write those fine-print contracts that plague the marketplace? The special role of a Philadelphia corporate lawyer in undermining consumer rights deserves media coverage. Law firms that increase the number of helpless consumer serfs should stop all but the most clueless reporters from describing such lawyers and their law firms as “prestigious.”
Where in the world did the all-too-regular three-day a week Congress come from? Congressional “recesses” already provide our Senators and Representatives plenty of time to handle matters in their home states. Small wonder members of Congress don’t have time to hold many Congressional oversight hearings. They don’t work on Monday and Friday and spend too much time in between at nearby private offices, furiously dialing for campaign dollars. Members of Congress are well paid for full-time work. How about our elected officials start working as hard as the average American workers work back home? The solons of Congress need to spend more time working for the taxpayers who pay their salaries.
We hear that there are hundreds of billions of dollars from previous Covid-19 stimulus-relief laws that are still unspent. Break it down: What is unspent; why, and who should be receiving these monies? Also, how much is there to claw back from entities and persons who were not entitled to their checks in 2020?
Check out how Jeff Bezos has enriched Amazon’s Board of Directors. It’s mostly public information. The Directors’ wealth is stunning. How can this small Board be independent with self-gifts of stock options and other remunerations, benefits, and expenses? Reporters need to look for other similar examples of corporate board members controlled by management tricks and treats.
Public Citizen tracks the rise and fall of imposed corporate fines by the federal government. This is fresh information. Their reports are released with little coverage in a period marked by a corporate crime wave, puny prosecutorial and other enforcement budgets, and enabling politicians. According to experts, there are fines which are not paid at all.
More than random references to the deliberately starved IRS budget, mostly by Congressional Republicans aiding and abetting tax evasion over the past decade, are needed for the public’s right to know. The beleaguered IRS estimates that it cannot collect between $400 billion and $600 billion a year, over 80% of which is uncollected corporate taxes – real money that is not spent on people’s needs, infrastructure, or reducing deficits. What’s the problem with Democratic House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA)?
Visit reportersalert.org for future updates. There is much more to come. Members of the media should let us know what they think.