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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