When General Colin Powell, in his speech at the Republican
National Convention, challenged his party to rein in corporate
welfare and not just other parts of government, reporters responded
approvingly. But a look at their own past record in coverage (or
lack of coverage) of subsidies to business and industry reveals that
reporters themselves need to start challenging both parties on the
"One of the things that I thought was interesting about Colin
Powell's speech," commented MSNBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, "is
that he did talk about the hard choices and he said, `Listen
friends, let me put it to you. We're going to have to give up
corporate welfare as well.'" PBS anchor Charlayne Hunter-Gault said
to the Family Research Council's Gary Bauer: "You heard the reaction
in the room at the conclusion of the speech. You also heard Mark
[Shields] say that when he talked about corporate welfare and
welfare for the wealthy there was a deafening silence in the room.
How do you think this crowd is really receiving this message?"
As important is how the media have received this message. For
while they are interested in corporate welfare now, the real
deafening silence has been in the media's coverage of business
subsidies. As reported by MediaNomics in past issues, reporters over
the last several months have often either ignored corporate welfare
when it was a major part of a prominent issue, or they have actually
promoted business subsidies.
Example: Last summer when some budget cutters in Congress were
trying to cut business pork, reporters came to the rescue. CNN's
Charles Bierbauer, for example, on the July 4, 1995 World News,
reported on the threatened elimination of the U.S. Travel and
Tourism Administration (USTTA). Introducing the story, anchor Bobbie
Battista described the USTTA as "the small federal agency set up to
lure tourists to the U.S....now on the chopping block."
Bierbauer quoted Greg Farmer, undersecretary of commerce,
defending the program: "There's a new job created every 2.5 seconds
in the travel and tourism industry in the world. I want the United
States to get its fair share." Is the USTTA corporate welfare?
Bierbauer didn't ask. Bierbauer's conclusion: "Tourists may continue
to come to the United States, of course, but they may no longer have
Uncle Sam to lead them here."
John Roberts, on the June 25, 1995 CBS Evening News, warned that
budget cuts may hurt summer jobs programs. "For the past 30 years,"
Roberts said, "kids from low-income families have had help from the
federal summer jobs program, which funds student employment."
Roberts quoted Labor Secretary Robert Reich as pointing out that
"one-third of disadvantaged kids who get summer jobs in the private
sector wind up working for the same companies in permanent jobs." So
does taxpayer funding of businesses training costs constitute
corporate welfare? Roberts didn't ask Reich.
A July 2, 1995 Washington Post story assumed the Commerce
Department was necessary and didn't bother interviewing critics who
were calling it the embodiment of corporate welfare. The entire
story was from the point of view of then-Commerce Secretary Ron
Brown. According to the Post, Brown, "a strong advocate of free
trade, today expressed confidence `cooler heads will ultimately
prevail' and his department will not be dismantled by Republicans in
The Post said the secretary had been "leading trips abroad with
American businessmen in hopes of prying open overseas markets" and
quoted Brown as saying that "it's unbelievable that the United
States would be the only country in the world where the private
sector would not have a seat at the cabinet table." The Post didn't
give any space to non-administration views, such as those of
economist Murray Weidenbaum of the Center for the Study of American
Business. "Of course, the relatively few who benefit from the
Secretary of Commerce personally opening doors for them think this
is a great idea," Weidenbaum told the House Commerce Committee.
"Millions of other businesses, large and small, however, pay the
taxes that finance these programs. They do not benefit from this
personal attention. In a nutshell, this whole process is unfair."
Sometimes journalists simply ignored corporate welfare
altogether, even when it was part of an issue they were covering.
This past spring, for example, most reporters accepted at face value
the Clinton Adminstration's expensive plan to restore parts of the
Florida Everglades. The fact that federal subsidies, supported by
both the Clinton Administration and Republicans in Congress, were
propping up the same sugar industry which threatened the Everglades
rarely merited a mention.
The Clinton plan is "the largest infusion of federal dollars ever
proposed for the Everglades, making it one of the biggest ecological
restoration projects ever," cheered CBS News correspondent Art
Rascon on the February 20 This Morning. Miami correspondent Peter
Katel, in the March 4 Newsweek, added that "Clinton's plan is the
high-water mark of reform. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and
Florida's two senators have a more modest plan to spend $200 million
of taxpayer funds -- not sugar money -- to buy some of the sugarcane
land for water-restoration projects." On February 20 reporter Mike
Clary of the Los Angeles Times called Clinton's plan "as ambitious
and comprehensive as any environmental project of recent years."
But none of these reporters made the connection between the
subsides provided to industry by the sugar tariff and damage to the
Everglades. None asked why the government, before spending a lot of
money, shouldn't just bring down the tariff. Only Eric Schmitt of
the New York Times criticized the subsidies. "The government sets
price supports that maintain domestic sugar prices at twice those on
the world market and, according to the General Accounting Office,
cost consumers $1.4 billion a year," Schmitt pointed out. "Strict
quotas on cheaper foreign sugar maintain the support price levels,
which critics say benefit a small number of wealthy plantation
owners and encourage overproduction in environmentally sensitive
areas like the Florida Everglades."
Such subsidies to business constitute some of the least
defensible of federal spending programs. Although neither Republican
nor Democratic politicians want to talk about corporate welfare, it
has critics outside of Congress and the Clinton Administration on
both the right and the left. Reporters generally cheered Colin
Powell for bringing up corporate welfare in his convention speech.
But when it comes to specific programs, they have usually been slow
to mention corporate welfare's critics and quick to assume that
business subsidies are justified.