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The business beat you may not have: Government

January 8, 2014

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This man appeared in Anchorage’s town square. Photo: Alaska Commons

The intersection of government and business is one of the most important and target-rich coverage areas available. Yet most news organizations don’t have it.

I first started the beat as business editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer back in the 1990s, handled by the talented Leah Beth Ward. She didn’t disappoint, producing some amazing journalism that went on to inform other beats she later covered. But I rarely see this done even today. One exception is the site ProPublica.

The reasons are understandable, and go beyond staff cutbacks. This beat invariably creates controversy. Far better to write anodyne features, shallow personal finance stories or reviews of cars and gadgets.

“Big business has large units
entirely dedicated to legal
tax evasion. Hundreds of billions
are parked overseas
in tax havens.”

The beat is also difficult. It can’t be mastered by most “12-year-olds.” It also runs up against resistance from nearly every other beat reporter, who wants to claim the story idea but rarely follows through. Even if they mean well, they don’t have time. This should be a full-time coverage area.

It matters because the actions of business and government most affect the lives of readers and citizens. Businesses, especially major corporations, are the most powerful actors in America. This power is amplified by their interactions with government.

More than 30 years after the Reagan Revolution, the United States remains a mixed economy of business and “gub’ment” — probably even more so than before 1980.

Big business tries to gave the system by obtaining subsidies, capturing regulators and gaming the tax code. Small business is often the victim of purblind regulation and anti-competitive practices by the big dogs. Think of Big Oil, Big Banks, Big Coal, Big Pharma, Big Agriculture and Big Defense, to name but a few — all are deeply involved in setting policy and bending laws to their advantage.

In the age of inequality, we also see the rise of “rent seeking” by big business and major investors. This can take many forms, from seeking to monopolize the patent system to getting the resources from public lands for less than market value and avoiding the costs of environmental damage. Rent seeking isn’t merely a cause of inequality, but also of slow job growth.

Business is heavily involved in politics, including funding candidates, ballot initiatives and, through organizations such as ALEC, crafting bills to be introduced and passed in state legislatures. Their lobbying heavily influences Congress. They have attained the most “pro-business” judiciary since the 1920s. Unions haven’t withered only because of technology, new business models and self-inflicted wounds, but especially because of anti-worker policies quietly pushed through by business.

“Free trade” isn’t. Deals such as NAFTA, KORUS and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are managed-trade agreements with major corporations seeking maximum advantage and few obligations to serve the national interest. No wonder hundreds of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs have been lost since these agreements came into force.

The Great Recession was caused at the intersection of government and business, the child of deregulation, compromised regulators and lawmakers, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent lobbying for a favorable environment for the financial hustles and grifting that finally blew up. And the big banksters got away with it.

Inaction on climate change is heavily influenced by the billion-dollar lobbying and disinformation campaign carried out by the fossil-fuel industries.

Big business has large units entirely dedicated to legal tax evasion. Hundreds of billions are parked overseas in tax havens. Ordinary Americans are told that “we’re broke” and their “entitlements” must be cut or eliminated.

These are a few reasons why this is an essential beat. Most readers don’t even know these things are going on. And it isn’t just a “macro” issue — you’ll find it at work in the smallest towns.

It has never been easier to develop such a beat, thanks to the Internet. A couple of valuable sites are Subsidy Tracker and Open Secrets. ALEC Exposed is one of several sites tracking this influential group and its corporate membership. Nearly every state provides information on who is funding candidates and lawmakers.

This is definitely a “name names” beat.

But it is also an opportunity to explain the complexities of how the economy really works, what’s behind the news and who is profiting.

Every business journalist should be on the lookout for this nexus. But it’s too big not to have its own beat. What’s stopping you.


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