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Ralph Nader: Alert Reporters Facing The Void – OpEd

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Let’s contemplate on good reporters. If you are a regular reader of prominent newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post (and the dispatches by AP and Reuters), do you ever get the feeling that reporters who write great stories of corporate greed and crime are writing into a void? Their reports accumulate on the road to nowhere – no impact, no consequences for the culprits.

Again and again, with a few luminous exceptions, their exposés fall on the inattentive ears of those who are supposed to be doing something about these abuses.

Patricia Cohen of The New York Times just wrote about the “Dozens of Big Companies [that] Paid Zero in Federal Taxes.” I’ve read this same story for years. Nothing happens. All are plunged into the void. The situation keeps getting more abominable.

Jason DeParle has been writing rigorously on poverty and hunger in America for years in The New York Times. Poverty persists, including child hunger, while the GDP expands big time. It took Covid-19 for Biden to send Congress some temporary alleviation of child poverty.

“Wage Theft Often Targets Low-Income Workers. Here’s How Police Can Fight It,” writes Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in The Washington Post. I read about this special non-prosecuted crime in law school decades ago.

“Appalling Lack of Public Toilets in the U.S.” reads another headline in The New York Times. How many years have we been told about this exceptional American deprivation among Western nations? People still have to hold it.

“Don’t Fall for Trump’s Latest Grift,” reports The Washington Post’s Molly Roberts. What difference would it make if we don’t? Trump has gotten away with widely reported lawlessness for decades, especially during his four years in the White House.

There is yet another wave of investigative articles and books on Amazon’s drive for domination. Amazon keeps getting more dominant. Same for Apple, Google, and Facebook.

Sarah Kliff of The New York Times writes regular exposés of staggering medical billing gouging of patients. Nary a ripple from the enforcement authorities wallowing in a weakened democracy.

Hundreds of stories on the climate crisis while carbon buildup continues to set records. Most of these stories do not mention or probe Congress – the one powerful institution that can turn the country around. Just 535 of them in Congress and we know their names. Get their reactions!

In the April 8th New York Times, David Leonhardt writes a story titled “A Dirty Little Secret – Corporate Tax Rates and the Very Rich.” Not secretive at all. That narrative has been written from many angles again and again by the Times’s past reporters, such as David Cay Johnston. It is because they all ended up in the Void that Mr. Leonhardt could make it look like a fresh dispatch. The Void never takes a holiday.

The great reporters do not stop with their first reporting. Their definition of newsworthiness expands to reporting about who is trying, officially and civically, to do something about the abuses, but is lacking public visibility. The reporter moves from writing a feature to following an ongoing dynamic begging for more public coverage. More details and evidence emanate from these quests. More legislators see the need for public hearings and more enforcers wake up to their duties. Without media giving legs to their first story, they meet the ever-patient Void repeatedly.

Sometimes, editors aren’t interested in the follow-up. They’ve got their exposé to submit for the journalistic prizes they crave. Enough making waves already. Unfortunately, there is for most of these reportorial fact-tellers, a peculiar satiety, a self-narrowing of their roles, a sense that they’ve done their job and it’s for others to give their findings “legs.” That attitude is an aborted sense of “newsworthiness.”

Often, moving beyond the initial byline is not easy. The indefatigable, ground-breaking military affairs reporter for The Washington Post, Walter Pincus, would try to have a follow-up for his revelations of the military-industrial-Congressional complex over the decades. He was met with internal disinterest and external cowardly resistance, especially in Congress where he once worked.

Alas, on a good many topics, we are in a golden age of muckraking exposés and whistle-blowing documentaries. All mostly meet the Void – perpetuated by a stubborn plutocracy daily subjugating our deteriorating democracy.

Sometimes, I’ve tried to help reporters give legs to their stories. For official source journalists, like those in the Times and Post, who “cover” or dittohead the declarations of Federal Reserve Chairman, Jerome Powell, they don’t break stories for them to have legs in the first place. Try getting them, for example, to write a story about near-zero interest rates depriving over 150 million savers, while the Fed ignores the gouging interest rates by pay-day lenders, student loan creditors, and unpaid credit card balances.

For other reporters, it’s more puzzling why it is so hard to elevate the expectation levels for their good work. Because we’ve done considerable work years ago on the computerized billing fraud epidemic in the U.S., I’ve tried several times to contact Sarah Kliff and share our knowledge for widening her reportorial impact. To no avail.

For reporters who are frustrated – try comparing notes with your readers!

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Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a politician, activist and the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel. In his career as consumer advocate he founded many organizations including the Center for Study of Responsive Law, the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the Center for Auto Safety, Public Citizen, Clean Water Action Project, the Disability Rights Center, the Pension Rights Center, the Project for Corporate Responsibility and The Multinational Monitor (a monthly magazine).

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