Business

Why Do Business Reporters Hate Business?

On the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, July 2018. (File photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
If they want to be reliable, journalists should strive to understand business, not condemn it.

James Madison identified the free press as “one of the great bulwarks of liberty” because he understood it could be a powerful check on abuses of power. But what Madison could not have foreseen was that so many reporters in the “free” press would voluntarily unite their cause with that of the state, transitioning from its watchdogs to its cheerleaders.

Nowhere is this unholy alliance more obvious than on the business page. In what other section are journalists so uniformly filled with animosity toward the subjects they claim to cover objectively? An arts writer who despised film and music, or a sportswriter who loathed football and golf would register as odd if not unfit. But anyone who has interacted with them can tell you that most business writers are steeped in progressive worldviews intrinsically hostile to markets and predisposed to government regulation and control.

That could be because most have never worked in corporate America, nor studied economics beyond an undergraduate survey. Journalism and other liberal-arts departments at the universities that stock our press corps are dominated by faculty with an anti-market animus manifestly transmitted to their students. As a consequence, few business writers display any understanding of the motivations or worldviews of the people who drive private enterprise.

The result is coverage in which any perceived market failure yields a predictable consensus around a set of supposed bad actors with malignant influence who must be stopped via regulatory or legal intervention.

Sometimes this knee jerk reaction takes on absurd and macabre dimensions, as when a recent New York Times article by reporter Brian M. Rosenthal on the New York City taxi-medallion system laid the blame for a rash of suicides on the shoulders of ‘predatory’ lenders.

The NYC taxi-medallion system was established nearly a century ago by the city’s government. It was designed to limit road congestion by limiting the number of taxis. In the process, it created cartel-like control over the market. This meant that the price of the medallions couldn’t fluctuate under the basic principles of supply and demand. Instead, costs skyrocketed because a finite resource was hoarded by a select few protected from competition by government regulation.

Enter Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare companies. When the government was no longer able to rig the market for incumbents, the drivers who owned the suddenly vastly overpriced medallions were left holding the bag. This is a tragedy not of the freer market that now rules liveries in New York, but of the unfree market that used to.

But to hear the Times tell it, the evil actor was the lending market that had by necessity emerged to help entrepreneurial cab drivers finance the exorbitant cost of the medallions. And the solution to the “bad” economic activity generated by government meddling? You guessed it: more government meddling, in the form of restrictions on the terms such lenders can offer. Limits driven by a bureaucrats’ abstract sense of justice, and not the realities of the lender’s assumed risk and service costs.

One would think that such an innumerate and one-sided take would be met with pushback if not outright scorn. Instead, the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize, and Rosenthal was given lavish praise from his colleagues, including a fawning profile.

In fact, nowhere is this mentality more prevalent and obvious than when journalists annually recognize the “best” in business reporting during the Gerald Loeb Awards. These prizes were created to “encourage and support reporting on business and finance that would inform and protect the private investor and the general public.”

But take a closer look at the nominees and winners in any recent year and the list is chock full of features, essays, and investigative pieces that are almost uniformly hostile to businesses of every stripe.  By the outlook of the Loeb judges, Silicon Valley is not a place of transformative growth and dynamism.  Instead it’s a cesspit of discrimination, gentrification, and exploitation as various Loeb awardees argued here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Despite the world-changing breakthroughs and far-reaching benefits produced by tech companies, there’s not a single piece in the bunch that highlights those achievements.

Other nominees target a variety of companies in the health sector,  such as insurers, hospitals, and makers of consumer-health products. Overlooked by the Loeb judges is a feature on groundbreaking innovations in medical care. Consumer and small-business lenders are also frequently the subject of scorn (see finalists here, here, and here). But an article about how a small-dollar loan helped a small business stay afloat in troubling times is nowhere to be found.

These pieces aren’t isolated examples. Just look at some other recent controversies.

Major outlets are circling the wagons around ‘Big Tech,’ fueling demands for new antitrust regulations with pieces such as this one piece by Wall Street Journal reporter Dana Mattioli. These takes rarely include the free market point of view, or recognize the tech-sector as the dynamic, constantly evolving market it is. A balanced perspective would note at least that the major players in the tech world of 2020 aren’t the same as those of 2010 and are likely to be different again come 2030. Instead, little distinction is made between Twitter and Ma Bell or U.S. Steel.

Or consider the fracking industry. Can anyone name a positive fracking story that appeared in any mainstream national news outlet in the last decade? One recent New York Times article by Julie Turkewitz laments that municipalities in Colorado are unable to ban fracking. Similarly, an L.A. Times newsletter on the environment by Sammy Roth seems to suggest California’s regulatory review process for new projects is too lax.

Or take this article by Darryl Fears in the Washington Post, which quotes multiple environmental groups decrying the Trump Administration’s loosening of fracking restrictions on public land. Each is underpinned by the unchallenged consensus that fracking is a net harm to the environment and, as such, requires stricter regulations. But the reality is far more nuanced. Cleaner-burning natural-gas power plants emit less than half the greenhouse gasses of coal or oil-fired plants. Yet fracking gets universally skeptical coverage from the press. (Not to mention that zero emissions alternatives, like nuclear, go virtually unacknowledged.)

This pro-regulatory, anti-market bias also appears in the sourcing and experts cited in the reporting.

In one recent article for The New York Times, Daisuke Wakabayashi raised concerns about the Global Antitrust Institute — an economic think tank at George Mason University that focuses on antitrust regulation — questioning whether its corporate funding sources drive its positions on the issues. The Institute doesn’t hide its preference for lighter-touch, pro-business approaches to antitrust, a view shared by many mainstream economists.

But Wakabayshi demonstrates immediate skepticism of the institute’s objectives. There is no way that any serious thinkers would support cutting regulation, he seems to imply, so corporate influence must be the only explanation. In probing the institute’s activity, the article quotes five sources that are critical of the think tank’s funding and perspective. It quotes only one defender. The critics are given both the first and last word in the story.

Or consider the way that reporters cover the consumer-credit industry. Some companies offer loans to low-income customers whose salary and income are not enough to meet unexpected expenses. Lending to this financially vulnerable group is simply presumed to be “predatory.” Indeed, a lengthy investigative piece by Peter Whoriskey for the Washington Post proceeds from that uninterrogated assumption. Fully thirteen critics of the industry are quoted, while only the company at the center of the attack is cited in its own defense, and in defense of the industry. Though there are a number of independent experts who defend consumer credit — Professor Todd Zywicki and economist Tom Miller, to name two — none were quoted.

So what is to be done?

One solution could be to change the way in which journalists are trained. J-school students spending more time in business or economics classes (and vice versa) would be a great first step. Reporters could also reach out to experts from across the philosophical spectrum to weigh in on the issue they’re covering rather than the progressive “expert” pile-on we see in most business coverage. Another solution could be for major publications to make a concerted effort to promote ideological diversity among their editors so that anti-business assumptions do not go unquestioned.

But the anti-market bias is so pervasive that it’s likely not going to be an easy fix. And lest you think the anti-business bias is limited to the traditionally liberal news outlets, only a few months ago news writers at the Wall Street Journal published an open letter complaining about the right-of-center leanings of the opinion section.

When the journalists we count on to be unbiased narrators fail us, where is there to turn?

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