The Fleece Police

It's Wednesday night on the NBC Nightly News—time
for yet another installment of "The Fleecing of America," the weekly
series on government waste. Tonight's episode stars a job training program in
Puerto Rico, designed to move seasonal farm workers off welfare and into
better-paying, permanent work. "Nothing wrong with that, right?" Tom
Brokaw asks. "Well," he frowns, "in Puerto Rico it can be much
more expensive than effective." Correspondent Robert Hager reports that
much of the money earmarked for job training each year goes for teaching routine
farm work: "chores most farm hands, even backyard gardeners, learn on their
own—work so basic you'd hardly expect the U.S. government to spend millions
training people to do it."

Sure enough, of the 1,125 workers who participated, only 37 got new,
higher-paying jobs—and just 17 of them managed to keep those positions.
That's $305,000 per job, Hager tells us, with a helpful graphic in case the
point wasn't clear. A brief interview with government officials follows. "We
think it's correctable," one says sheepishly. Then Hager cuts to the chase:
"Labor now promises tighter controls plus an end to farm training for
unskilled chores, but that's after it's own auditors said it was a waste—a
$7 million fleecing—that put taxpayers out to pasture."

Watching stories like these night after night, it's tempting to believe that
Washington can do nothing right—that most government programs are just "good
intentions gone wrong at a high cost to the taxpayer," to borrow Brokaw's
phrase. But is America really getting fleeced? Let's go to the videotape—or,
more precisely, the cutting-room floor. NBC didn't mention that the Puerto Rico
program was part of a national program for training migrant workers. Getting
people off welfare is inherently difficult, yet the General Accounting Office
and the Rockefeller Foundation have cited other elements of this particular
program as model welfare-to-work initiatives. The national program for migrant
workers costs about $80 million—out of a roughly $1.5 trillion federal
budget—and by most accounts all except the $7 million on Puerto Rico was
well spent.

Hager's story omitted another crucial tidbit: Puerto Rico's unemployment
rate is a staggering 13 percent, and it reaches 20 percent in the rural areas
served by this training program. Much of the island's population is
undereducated—the average migrant worker has a fifth-grade reading level—and
at least some of the "misdirected" money was spent on basic literacy
schooling. It seems a few local officials decided it was more worthwhile to
teach workers how to read and write than to train them for jobs that weren't
available anyway. That stretched the intent of the program, but would you really
call it a fleecing?

One more subtlety that never came across in the story was the federal
government's affirmative role in bringing the Puerto Rico situation to light. It
was the Labor Department that first asked its inspector general to investigate
the program's disappointing results three years ago, and, ironically enough, the
ensuing critical report provided the grist for NBC's story. Hager did credit an
"internal audit" as his source, but only the most attentive viewer
would have made the connection. The segment's tone screamed bureaucratic
ineptitude, not government fixing a problem.

Ironically, there was a good, hard-hitting story here, waiting to be told.
At a time when many officials (particularly at the Labor Department) have seized
upon training as a panacea for unemployment and falling wages, the Puerto Rico
story could have served as a case study in why job training is insufficient in
the absence of broader economic action—or why training programs involving
employer subsidies are prone to abuse without sufficient control from
Washington. But NBC was not looking for an insightful look at the pitfalls of
training or the perils of devolution; it just wanted cheap indignation at the
public sector's expense. Says Kent Graham, producer of the "Fleecing"
series, NBC prefers segments that are "80 percent fleece and 20 percent the
other side."

This mentality—and the skewed coverage it inevitably fosters—is
emblematic of a disturbing pattern. Certainly it is appropriate for media to
expose government waste. But the relentless pursuit of even the most petty
examples of excess frequently simplifies complicated policy issues while
crowding out scrutiny of more worthy targets, particularly those in the private
sector. You can't turn on a news show anymore without hearing about another $500
toilet seat, but good luck trying to find a story that reports the untaxed
benefits top managers get from their companies. Is it any wonder liberals have
such a hard time defending regulatory and social welfare programs?

The networks do portray government's positive side
now and then. ABC's World News Tonight has its own series called "Your
Money, Your Choice," that predates the NBC project by two years. Recently "Your
Money" has profiled a few innovative government programs that actually
saved money; correspondent John Martin has also filed the occasional story about
an alleged example of government waste that turned out to be a worthy
investment. "We try to be more descriptive than accusatory," Martin
says.



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Still, the vast majority of "Your Money" stories focus on
government boondoggles. Martin recalls that when Paul Friedman, then the
executive producer of World News Tonight (and now the vice president of
ABC News), first pitched the idea, he had a very specific motif in mind: "Here's
how they're wasting your money." Since then ABC has run some 150 reports,
many of them dealing with programs that cost less than $50 million a year. Early
on, ABC at least tried to offer viewers a sense of context by comparing the cost
of wasteful programs to other items in the budget: Viewers got to see just what
else the $18 million appropriated to build an Abraham Lincoln historical center
could have bought in, say, expanded education funding or road construction. But
that feature did not last long. The network deemed it too complicated for the
viewers and too taxing on the research staff in New York.

While Martin concedes "we've had a couple [of segments] that were quite
minor," he defends in principle the attention his network devotes to
government waste: "It's two minutes a week . . . so I don't think that's an
excessive amount in the grand scheme of things." But to measure the impact
of these shows simply by summing their two-minute increments—and, to be
precise, it's usually closer to three or four minutes per segment—ignores
the context in which they appear. "Fleecing" and "Your Money"
get great resources and play, with teasers on the morning shows and,
occasionally, prime time. On the nightly news, dispatches from other
correspondents reinforce the mentality that all government spending is wasteful,
as do the weekly newsmagazine shows such as Prime Time Live with Sam
Donaldson.

The unyielding scrutiny of government might be defensible were such scrutiny
applied to the private sector as well. Yet business interests rarely receive
such treatment, even though they have long been vulnerable to equal criticism
for excess and wrongdoing. For instance, until Pat Buchanan's presidential bid
caught fire early this year, the networks barely approached stories of corporate
greed. An examination of the network news archives at Vanderbilt University
shows that in all of 1995, NBC devoted a scant 15 minutes of coverage to
downsizing-related stories, only a few of which did anything more than announce
some layoffs and the impact on stock prices. The weekly "Fleecing"
series, meanwhile, merited well over 103 minutes—and it didn't even kick
off until May. It's not quite an analogous comparison, but it is suggestive of
where the networks' priorities lie.

Perhaps more tellingly, the networks have conspicuously laid off aggressive
consumer reporting and investigation—in no small part because they
legitimately fear litigation by the targets of such muckraking. The instructive
case here, of course, is the saga of tobacco coverage on ABC and CBS. When ABC's
Day One ran an story accusing the tobacco companies of spiking
cigarettes with nicotine, Philip Morris slapped them with a lawsuit and ABC
issued an apology—this, despite the fact that many legal experts concluded
that ABC would have won its case. (Indeed, subsequent investigations have
validated much of ABC's story.) That episode led CBS to pull its own story on
tobacco, and it wasn't until print outlets ran their own tobacco stories this
spring that the networks reengaged the debate. By then both ABC and CBS had
completed their merger deals, creating the strong appearance that the
programming decisions were based on a fear that pending lawsuits might
jeopardize takeover negotiations.

Although print media are more likely to treat government programs with the
complexity they deserve, most share the aversion to corporate muckraking. The
tilt in who is targeted by today's muckrakers seems to have three broad causes.
First, media conglomerates today think more like corporations and less like
journalists. The once-sacred wall between newsroom and boardroom has been badly
breached since the days of Murrow and Cronkite. (And we haven't even mentioned
advertiser pressure.) Second, business generally enjoys prestige today,
especially in the elite circles of which broadcasters are a part, while
government is held in low repute. Network investigative reporters vindicate the
prejudices of their colleagues when they savage government; they don't find much
corporate malfeasance because they don't look for it.

But perhaps the most compelling and immediate reason for the imbalance in
the reporting is an imbalance in the behavior of the targets. Business bites
back, and government doesn't. Reporters who go after government waste are
pressing on an open door, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, General
Accounting Office reports, and congressional investigations. They are rewarded
with a no-heavy-lifting source of exposé and a happy boss. The story
practically writes itself. By contrast, a reporter who goes after corporate
corruption faces secrecy, long hours of thankless digging, threatened lawsuits,
and nervous or hostile superiors. How much easier it is to attack the Labor
Department.

No wonder TV makes government look terrible and corporate America seem rosy.
Viewers looking for evenhanded investigations of public and private wrongdoing
might feel, well, fleeced.



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