I start with a point from Richard Parker’s discussion of needed improvements in journalism education and apply it more broadly.

Parker argues that "fundamental democratic political concerns" should provide the context in which business and economics are taught to journalism students and fellows. I would say that those concerns are also the exact context in which journalism itself needs to put the actions of businesses and business leaders.

It is no stretch to hold that what business does, combined with what its leaders advocate and work for in the political arena, affects nearly every aspect of American society. It is also true that business actions and advocacy intersect, at many points, with government. It is precisely that intersection of business and government that I want to focus on as a primary task for watchdog journalism. I will use a few specific examples and hope they will stimulate ideas about others.

Some of my examples would lead to stories that fit the category of traditional investigative journalism; others would not. Most would require reporting at the state or local level. All need to be carried in local newspapers and on local broadcast outlets for that is where people get most of their news.

On to the examples.

Health
Much has been written, and more will be, about cost-cutting HMO’s that are keeping doctors from giving patients all the care the doctors think they need. Good. That controversy needs the ongoing coverage it is getting.

But this issue may be diverting journalists from pursuing an older, seamier and now probably a more pervasive kind of wrongdoing involving the taxpayers’ money and medical care. The wrong is fraudulent billing of Medicare and Medicaid by health care providers. A federal charge is pending right now against the hospital colossus Colum-bia-HCA, accusing it of basing its bills to Medicare on systematically deceptive record-keeping.

At the state level, where Medicaid is administered, pursuit of health care rip-offs by the authorities is not by any means universally what it should be (even though Medicaid is the largest or next-to-largest budget item almost everywhere.) Every state government does have a Medicaid fraud unit, and some are aggressive. But some do not even have computers set up to spot preposterous bills from scammers like the doctor who is asking payment for treating 35 patients every day—a factual example. Nor are they in any position to uncover billings that are merely suspicious, like a sudden three-fold rise in purchases of a particular piece of equipment for use by patients, or an explosive increase in the reported incidence of a particularly hard-to-treat illness. Journalists have, in fact, uncovered abuses of this kind, as far back as the 1970s. But they seem to be paying less attention now.

Chances are that committed public servants could be found in state health departments and fraud units or the attorney general’s office who would welcome inquiries from a reporter. What are we waiting for?

Education
A number of state courts have, by now, held that use of the property tax to fund public education violates the state constitution because it results in less money, per child, being spent on inner city and rural schools. It has fallen to state government to make the necessary adjustments, which obviously means that one state tax or another usually must be increased. Recently, a few states have begun equalizing school spending without any court order, in the belief that their economic future depends on a good education for all future participants in its workforce or simply out of a compelling sense of what’s right.

This is an issue that is likely to divide the business community everywhere it arises—a phenomenon, not uncommon in the field of public policy, but one that our coverage hardly ever even suggests. Some business executives will be in the forefront of those arguing for voluntary equalization, while others will "just say no" to any legislation that might require a tax increase (continuing, all the while, to complain about the quality of the new entrants into the workforce.) What happens, and why, when business leaders don’t agree on a major public policy issue? That’s a good story that isn’t being covered.

Roads and Highways
Which ones to fund, and under what guiding philosophy (other than political horse-trading) has long been a divisive political issue at every level of government. But where the roads and highways will go, in the future, is a matter of increasingly serious concern to some heavy thinkers who worry about the growth of economic inequality in our society. Business executives, wishing to locate where they expect to find the most-qualified workers and the least threat from crime (among other ills) are pushing hard, in many places, for freeways that bypass the cities and the older suburbs, as well, on their way out into the exurbs. The result: even fewer jobs and more poverty and social pathology not just in the center cities but increasingly, in the inner suburbs, too. Is this being discussed and debated anywhere in the news media?

Campaign Finance
The most important, largely uncovered, issue here is not who is contributing, nor whether the contributions themselves are legal, but what the contributors appear to have gotten in exchange for their money. With elections to Congress coming up later this year, it’s an ideal time for journalists to start examining the votes their Representatives and Senators have cast and determining whether they seem to match up with the interests of those who gave to their campaigns the last time they ran or so far this year. Of course, a mere match is not proof of influence, but are there matches that are inconsistent with what the politician says he or she stands for? (It should go without saying that the matchup would include not just business donors, but all donors.)

The task of putting this material together can be tedious, but there is help available, some of it comprehensive, reliable and free, from such groups as the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which has up-to-date filings on line at www.crp.org.

Welfare Reform
Many businesses are trying to facilitate welfare mothers’ transition to work, with on-the-job "coaches," on-site or near-site child care, transportation assistance and other help. A look at what’s working and what isn’t could be timely. A caveat: It may be the best equipped welfare moms who’ve gotten the jobs. Is anybody hiring the "hard core?" (State figures on the percentage of the welfare caseload in the center city today, compared with the pre-reform era, will suggest who’s getting the jobs. Wisconsin’s has gone from 37 to 50.) A story that should be revisited every so often. A good Website: www.welfareinfo.org.

What, specifically, might be done—other than suggesting un- or under-covered stories—to foster watchdog journalism in the area of business and the economy? A worthy undertaking would be a systematic effort to acquaint more reporters "out there" (as Washington locates them) with the many excellent Washington-based sources (like CRP) for data, research and analysis.

Much of the Washington press corps ignores these sources, as they chase after each day’s hot story in packs. And too few reporters elsewhere seem to know about the good researchers and think tanks with their voluminous publications and staff who really want to help reporters and know how to. Among the best for economic policy and politics are the American Enterprise Institute, whose resident scholars are conservative to moderately conservative; the Brookings Institution, liberal to moderately liberal; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, liberal; the Heritage Foundation, conservative, and the Urban Institute, moderately liberal.

Beyond all that, what would be most useful is the creation of some sort of system for information exchange among journalists in different places about actual stories they’ve done and even potential stories, such as those I’ve outlined. It could be remarkably effective, though not easy to launch, if a standing feature, covering just such material, could be incorporated into Editor and Publisher, the trade weekly of the daily newspaper business, and Broadcasting Magazine, which reaches the top executives in that field. They are the people who will have to decide whether to spend money on watchdog projects.

Eileen Shanahan retired from full-time work three years ago, but still writes regularly for Governing, the national monthly covering state and local government, and occasionally for The New York Times Syndicate. She was the founding editor of Governing, which recently marked its 10th anniversary. Her long career in journalism includes 14 years as a reporter in The New York Times Washington Bureau, and a prominent role as a "named plaintiff’ in the successful sex discrimination lawsuit against the paper. Last summer, she spent five weeks in Tanzania, teaching local and regional reporting to working journalists in that East African country, under a USIA program.

Most popular stories from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment