By Ralph Nader
Reporters at major newspapers and magazines are hard to reach by telephone. Today it is increasingly hard to converse with them about timely scoops, leads, gaps in coverage, and corrections to published articles.
We started an online webpage: Reporter’s Alert. From time to time, we will use Reporter’s Alert to present suggestions for important reporting on topics that are either not covered or not covered thoroughly. Reporting that just nibbles on the periphery won’t attract much public attention or be noticed by decision-makers. Here is the fifth installment of suggestions:
1. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, has just reported staggering quarterly earnings. This achievement, no doubt assisted by policies of the Federal Reserve, makes the following statement by him on January 21, 2021, a wonderful opportunity for reportorial follow up:
“I’ve been to a lot of meetings with presidents and prime ministers and senators and congressmen, and the selfishness and parochialism with the business folks is just absolutely outrageous.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/19/business/dealbook/trump-globalism.html)
What did Mr. Dimon mean by such a judgment of his peers in the business world? He is known to be outspoken. There might be a provocative story should he choose to elaborate. But first, he has to be asked.
2. The scrutiny of Internet advertising is much less than the attention formally given to print advertising before the Internet. The major trade journal, Advertising Age, led by the legendary columnist, Stanley Cohen, was often very critical of the advertising industry. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) even required, at one time, specific advertising claims to have substantiation filed with the agency. Today, the giant’s Google, Facebook, and other masters of the Internet rely heavily on ad revenues, their Achilles Heel. How effective are these ads? Is their fine-tuned targeting based on privacy invasions? What is Google et al. doing in their backrooms?
3. Speaking of corruption, what safeguards are being placed over the trillions of dollars streaming into all corners of the country from Washington legislation? In the $31 billion proposed for the reservations of the First Nations, there is also $5 million allocated to oversee disbursements. What is being done to catch and punish any waste, fraud, and abuse on what is spent inside and outside the US? Wherever there are government contracts, grants, and loans, there must be consistent media digging and reporting.
4. Billions of dollars of imported foods are coming to the United States labeled as “organic.” How is this claim being verified? What does the U.S.D.A. do to assure its labels are truthful? Any inspectors? What evasions have been uncovered? The temptation to sell the organic label but not the real organic fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs are everywhere. Are any of the major environmental or consumer groups (Greenpeace, NRDC, Friends of the Earth, Consumer Reports) monitoring this situation? Is the Customs Bureau doing anything?
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5. It is increasingly difficult, especially in an Internet Age, to quit your vendor. Some of these obstacles are due to complexities in the relationship. For example, compare banks today with banks in the 1960s. But much of this lock-in is deliberate – sometimes with penalties for leaving – requiring consumers to go through hoops. Try getting out of your Amazon Prime “Membership.” See how leaving Amazon compares to your one-click purchases from Mr. Jeff Bezos. Moving from brokerage and credit card firms is needlessly bureaucratic – after one spends hours trying to get through to the right persons (forget about one-stop quitting in an era of much-touted one-stop shopping).
Then there are the “dark moments,” where corporate coercion sells you stuff you didn’t ask for or know about. There are also vendor tricks for upgrading your sales category. This is a controlling mechanism by vendors which also dilutes the effects of competition – a kind of barrier to the mobile choice of vendors. There is much to investigate here that is sometimes rooted in the pits of the omnipresent fine print contracts.
6. Just who are those state legislators in the GOP brazenly harassing certain categories of voters? How dare they do such a thing in plain sight – after their right-wing corporate attorneys do the devious drafting of the bills? Creating crazy hurdles to block voters (such as difficult IDs, requiring notarized signatures, and many more obstacles reported often in the media) is over-regulating, harassing, intimidating, and purging voters. So too are bills in Florida and Texas criminalizing or entrapping free speech street protests.
Profile these incinerators of democracy, these closeted bigots, and venomous beasts of prey who target the most vulnerable and discriminated against wannabe voters. Do specific state laws provide criminal penalties for officials implementing these shredders of voting rights? If not, why not? Are private remedies too onerous or non-existent? These abuses should get at least as much opprobrium, censorship, and demands for resignation as “no-touch” sexual harassment receives.
7. During meetings or telephone conversations with newspaper editors, I urge them to do random surveys of how difficult it is for ordinary citizens to simply get through to their government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. Editors immediately praise the suggestion and then do nothing.
Many zillions of hours are wasted waiting on the phone for government officials (e.g., the budget-strapped IRS). But apart from any budget excuses, for many agencies, avoiding calls or not responding to callers has become part of the culture at many government departments. Some agencies simply leave their phones off the hook for hours at a time. This occurred before the Covid-19 pandemic. Reporters may not experience this distress because they can get through more often, though they may not like the nature of the response non-response. Media surveys should be conducted by “ordinary people” with ordinary questions, for starters.
Getting through to corporations and their so-called “customer service” departments can offer similar hurdles. Telephone, insurance, and utility companies, for instance, all avoid talking to their customers. Emails are also easily dismissed and, anyhow, emails are not like two-way telephone conversations.
Hope all the above and the prior four Reporter’s Alert lists help stimulate some reporting on these important topics.