By Ralph Nader
Connecting the civic community with the mainstream media is no minor endeavor. Historically, this connection has been essential to a functioning democracy. The citizenry is the taproot of democracy and a key source for journalists’ declared function of informing the people.
My efforts on this front have been threefold. First, I wrote about 30 national citizen organizations last October documenting how, since the Sixties and Seventies, the media has been marginalizing the civic community on a variety of matters and especially of reforming the political economy.
Where once journalists would cover civic group reports, litigation, testimony, and top civic leaders for their expertise, the coverage now is woefully inadequate. Civic leaders do not like to publicly acknowledge this exclusion for it makes them look powerless vis-à-vis the political and commercial interests they have to confront and reform. So, my urgings for them to pay intense attention to the years of near blackout fell on cautiously silent ears.
Next, recognizing how hard it is, in the modern Internet age, to reach reporters to provide them with scoops, leads, corrections, and amplifications of their articles and features, I started the Reporter’s Alert (See, https://reportersalert.org/). The idea was if you can’t reach reporters and editors, as once was the case, then maybe you present story suggestions in one place, and they’ll check in from time to time. There are now six lists of suggestions on the site. There are some modest indications that the suggestions are being viewed by some reporters and editors.
A third approach occurred to me while reading recent newspapers. By its own objectives and standards, the media is well advised to call these experienced civic leaders to better the reporting they are doing.
Here are some varied examples of the importance of such calls.
1. Day after day the press is reporting on the Biden infrastructure proposals all totaling $4 trillion, broken down into $2.3 trillion for public works and the rest toward “human infrastructure” for adults and children. There are ongoing negotiations between the White House and the GOP in Congress that involve lower dollar figures. Yet, in the New York Times and the Washington Post, reporters allow the impression that these are gigantic sums because they do not tell us that these are sums stretched over 8 to 10 years. So, divide them by eight or ten and they appear very modest and less susceptible to misunderstanding. From say $400 billion a year down to a little over $100 billion, depending on what gets through Congress, is really very little for a $25 trillion economy with serious deferred maintenance of our public services and family necessities. Apple alone just announced another $90 billion stock buyback. A new proposal to build a sea wall around Miami, due to rising sea levels, came in at $1 billion a mile. Reporters calling any number of citizen groups working on public investments would have avoided this daily omission.
2. Much reporting on HR1 dealing with overcoming state-driven voter restrictions has left out provisions adding new obstacles to third-party candidate ballot access. Both candidate and voter repression are tied together (more voices and choices) and bad for a competitive democracy. A call to Oliver Hall of the Center for Competitive Democracy would have revealed that unreported fact.
3. For years, reporters have had a far too limited range on trade policies, focusing on conventional trade barriers and too little on the way corporations created “corporate-managed trade” over so-called “free trade” both substantively (subordinating environment, consumer and labor rights to the imperatives of commerce) and procedurally creating a dictatorial process of secrecy and exclusion. Were they to have brought Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch into the discourse, they would have served their public far better. In recent years, reporters began to understand this accurate, precise information source and do call Ms. Wallach more often.
4. Judy Woodruff of PBS’s NewsHour has a penchant for interviewing reporters. For example, she interviews reporters covering tax issues, when her predecessors interviewed acknowledged tax experts like Bob McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice. The drop in quality shows reporters have to be more limited in what they say and they have far less historical context regarding Congress, the Treasury Department, and the IRS.
5. Sidney Wolfe of the Health Research Group and Dr. Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest used to be in the news all the time during the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and into the very early 20th century. No more, nor are their expert colleagues. The paucity and superficiality of coverage of pharmaceutical issues (including the latest Biogen fiasco) and the failure of the FDA and USDA to regulate the food supply continues.
6. The mainstream media is finally stepping up its reporting about the need to investigate whether the Covid-19 pandemic started with a negligent leak from the Wuhan Institute. The media would have done well to contact Andy Kimbrell of the International Center for Technology Advancement, a seasoned litigator, to hear his cautious skepticism back in the spring of 2020 that the Covid may not have been from direct animal contact.
7. Coverage of the Boeing 737 MAX crashes has been unusually good, but could have been better and earlier, were the reporters on this beat to have contacted Paul Hudson, head of Flyers Rights (See, https://flyersrights.org/) and a member of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee. Hudson has been covering the aviation safety scene for 32 years since he lost his daughter in the Pan Am 103 explosion/crash in Scotland.
8. Coverage of autonomous cars is and has been a media exercise in “gee whiz hoopla,” uncritically reporting the industry’s hype in hundreds of articles. Now as the New York Times has reported there are serious drawbacks to seeing autonomous cars (as distinguished from semi-autonomous systems) on the roads. (See, It Turns Out It’s a Long Road to Driverless Cars, New York Times May 25, 2021). Really? Calls to the Center for Auto Safety, former NHTSA Director Joan Claybrook, or the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety would have alerted reporters about these still unsolved technical problems years ago. This mis-telling was a serious disservice to readers.
9. Reporters covering political candidates and their agendas, almost never ask about candidates’ stands on corporate crime and corporate welfare. Most recently, this was the case with the Times’s Q and A with the candidates for mayor of New York City. New York is a hotbed of corporate crime waves that the Times reports on as if it is a separate topic from political contests.
10. Lawlessness in the executive branch under both Parties, with the worst under Donald Trump’s Justice Department, is rarely a reporter’s focus. We’ve documented continual serious presidential violations of federal statutes, international treaties, and illegal uses of executive orders. Almost none of our calls are returned. (nader.org).
The examples could go on and on. United Airlines’ publicity stunt the other day, announced orders for numerous supersonic airline passenger planes which no one is manufacturing. Reporters never asked about obvious, serious drawbacks pointed out in a concise letter to the editor in the Washington Post by an aerospace engineer, Antonio Elias.
The media would do well to recognize that just about every movement for a just society started with a small number of citizens, then more organized civic groups before the politicians joined the fight. Journalist’s report, as you did in the Sixties and Seventies, the legitimate voices of expert civic engagement, as you cover the plight of the people they’re striving to help and our society will improve.