Last August, The Washington Post Business section revealed that the International Trade Commission had mobilized to stem the flow into the United States of inexpensive Canadian raspberries. The red peril from the north was cutting into the profits of American growers, the Post reported: “Canadians appear to be taking advantage of a quirk in U.S. customs law that allows them to ship unfrozen raspberries into the U.S. duty-free during the July and August growing seasons.”
The raspberry story ran on the front of the Business section. In a short item on page 3 the same day, the Post noted that Ford Motor Company had recalled 361,900 of its 1981-84 cars because they had defective seat belts that might break during front-end crashes.
Somewhere there are a handful of people who were truly alarmed by the ITC’s having to intervene in the Canadian fruit situation. Some of them might be right here in Washington—members of the raspberry lobby, perhaps. But a lot more people would probably like to know about seat belts that won’t protect them and their families in case of an accident. It’s the kind of information that reminds us of how the failings of large corporations affect our lives. On a more practical level, it’s also the kind of information you might like to have on your way into a showroom full of shiny new autos.
A lot of interesting consumer news gets buried in the Post. In recent months, dozens of stories on dangerous products, ranging from cars to power saws to baby pacifiers, have received only passing coverage from the paper, often on page 3 of the Business section. The Nutone company decides to fix a quarter of a million ceiling fans it has sold because they sometimes fall from their fixtures during operation; “herbal” arthritis pills available over-the-counter in 40 states are found to contain potentially dangerous levels of prescription drugs; the list goes on and on.
Several outside critics, including this magazine, have chided the Post for downplaying news that has a direct and potentially immediate impact on its readers. From the inside, Sam Zagoria, the Post‘s ombudsman, wrote in his column last July that many more stories about consumer safety should receive prominent play—some in the National section. “Newspapers and magazines are part of the marketplace process, contributing to (and profiting from) the sale of a great variety of products,” Zagoria wrote. “When any of these go sour, for whatever reasons, I believe the media should share responsibility with the manufacturer and retailer to alert customers to the danger and help them obtain appropriate redress.”
Zagoria’s admonishment, as well as follow-up discussions he had with Post writers and editors, have had no noticeable impact. Several editors flatly dismiss Zagoria’s concerns as unimportant, while others explain them away by citing his tenure from 1978 to 1984 on the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The classic explanation for a newspaper seeming to avoid consumer coverage is that the publisher fears a loss of advertising profits. The Post probably is not immune to this phenomenon, but as a profitable company with little competition, it doesn’t appear to be as vulnerable as the average small-town daily. A better explanation for the Post‘s downplaying of consumer safety stories begins with the way a major newspaper tends to classify some news as insignificant because it’s not startlingly unique and doesn’t involve conventional political power struggles. Our perceptions of the pressing events of the day are shaped in large measure by such behind-the-scenes pigeon-holing, as well as by the culture of the newsroom, which at the Post draws reporters’ attention toward the doings of official Washington and away from potentially deadly automobiles.
The science of ‘story-ification’
A lot of what newspapers publish comes prepackaged in the form of press releases or wire service reports. Many consumer safety stories—most recall stories, for example—come to the Post‘s attention in this way. The numbers on the Ford seatbelt problem flash across the VDT screen of someone like Deputy Business Editor Jerry Knight, who makes an initial decision on what the paper will do with the information. Knight explains that the Post has certain set standards for determining, first, whether a dispatch merits any attention at all and, second, whether it is important enough to be “story-ified,” or assigned to a Post reporter for further investigation and possibly prominent billing.
Knight’s Rule has the ring of a Holmesian legal test. In order to qualify for story-ification, he says, “it has to be a big recall in terms of numbers, or there must be an imminent danger of injury or death, or the product in question must be widely available in the Washington area.”
Story-ification is more important than you might think. By having a reporter track down a recall notice, the Business section greatly increases the odds that readers will get more than an array of statistics. In addition, a story with a Post byline is more likely to get good play. All papers enjoy showing what their own people can dig up; whenever possible, editors like to reward reporters’ efforts with favorable exposure. If Business thinks it has a particularly important article on its hands, Frank Swoboda, the section’s top editor, will pitch it to National at the daily afternoon conference of all of the paper’s ranking editors.
Jerry Knight portrays a system in which little is left to chance. “When you keep the [story-ification] criteria in mind,” he says, “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a consumer story that we didn’t play right.”
That depends, of course, on what you consider to be “big” numbers or “imminent danger.” In addition to the Ford recall of 361,900 cars, the Post has recently buried call-backs involving 31,000 GM sports cars (brake problems), 68,000 GM trucks (transmission and brake defects), and 91,000 Ford trucks (brakes). In several of these cases, people had been injured, although there were no reports of deaths. Clearly, the defective vehicles posed a threat to anyone driving them.
It’s not hard to find people at the Post somewhat less confident than Knight regarding the seamlessness of the decision-making process. Leonard Downie Jr., the paper’s managing editor, concedes that article play “depends to a large extent on a given editor’s judgment on a given day, and what the other news is. There are certainly some recall notices that we didn’t story-ify that we should have.” Others are more direct. “It’s a sad fact that the consumer beat has become a back-burner beat that lots of people take for granted,” says Swoboda. “The truth is, the consumer movement is virtually dead.”
That’s a tough one for Ralph Nader—by all appearances, a healthy man—to swallow. While Nader acknowledges that his young lobbyists are no longer a novelty on Capitol Hill, he argues that interest in consumer victimization has never been more widespread. As just one measure, he points out, the circulation of the magazine Consumer Reports has hit an all-time high of 3.2 million. In response to Swoboda’s eulogy on the consumer movement, Nadar asks angrily, “Is his obligation to serve the readers or to be a political antenna?”
Of course, Nader’s kind of investigations are still needed because Detroit still produces faulty cars and drug companies still sell dangerous medications. It shouldn’t take the existence of “a movement”—with some requisite number of press conferences and sit-ins—to constitute news, especially when the stories in question have a tangible relationship to readers’ lives.
Sadly, consumer news is dogged by more than one peculiar journalistic orthodoxy. In the days before Nader first warned us about flip-flopping Corvairs, many newspapers treated consumer issues as something of interest only to housewives. It was a matter of that darned dishwasher acting up again, not systematic negligence by faceless corporate executives or deep problems in the manufacture of American products. The Post ran many of its consumer stories on the “ladies’ page,” and later in the Style section. Only gradually, in the late sixties and early seventies, did consumer coverage migrate out of Style and into the Metro and Business sections.
But at the Post, consumer affairs reporters still have to bear some of the beat’s outmoded sexist baggage. Sari Horwitz, a Business reporter who covers consumer issues regularly, says, “A lot of people around here consider consumer problems a ‘soft’ beat, a ladies’ beat—you know, what soap to buy.” Horwitz adds, “That’s a stereotype that I’d like to help change!”
Get the lead out
Almost schizophrenically, the Post has made gestures indicating recognition of its spotty consumer coverage, but without seriously attempting to improve it. Frank Swoboda, for example, has claimed the topic as Business section turf—this despite his opinion that the beat is lifeless. Swoboda says that he hopes consumer news will attract new readers to Business. But a huge majority of the actual consumer stories still run deep inside the section. Meanwhile, Business, as well as National, give front-page placement to the regular avalanches of statistics from the Labor Department or Federal Reserve Board, regardless of how obscure and irrelevant this information is to most readers.
Peter Silberman, Business editor until 1982 and now a deputy managing editor, argues that his innovation of running recall stories under a regular column heading has helped readers find their way to consumer news. “I felt they should be anchored in one place,” says Silberman. “The assumption was that once you train readers to look in a certain place, they will find them.”
Silberman seems to think that people burrow through a newspaper to find recall stories with the determination of a Wall Street investor looking for the stock quotes. But with all the consumer products crowding our lives, we don’t think about possible defects in our braking system or baby stroller until the news hits us, and that’s precisely why such news should be featured prominently.
Even a hypothetical recall maven, who lives for revelations of exploding gas tanks, would have trouble finding his favorites in the Post. Take the Business section of May 31: you would have had to forge past the stories on tax reform and routine corporate jousting; past the agate-type daily stock, bond, and commodity reports; all the way back to the lower right-hand corner of page D10 to find—admittedly, under the heading, “Recall”—a five-inch wire service report that GM had called back 197,000 Buicks equipped with bumpers that could fracture on impact and puncture the cars’ fuel tanks.
Frank Swoboda isn’t dismayed in the least. “I would have no sense of remorse,” he says, “if a person got zapped by a killer toaster because he failed to look inside the financial section!’
The implicit message from Business is that product mishaps aren’t really consumer news at all. This information—these lifeless six-digit numbers—aren’t presented to warn buyers about bad cars; they’re there to tip off investors and stock brokers that GM or Ford had a little setback.
Consider another recent item about the recall of 6,000 Land O’Lakes turkey roasts which may have contained fragments of metal. The Post ran the tiny blurb in the lower right-hand corner of page two of the Business section. To the left and above was “Hutton Barred From Some Business”; to the right, on the lower left-hand corner of page 3, the regular feature, “What Stocks Did.” Many shoppers no doubt would be fascinated to learn what processing techniques bring turkeys in contact with metal fragments, not to mention whether their own supermarket stocks the suspect birds.
Following the feds
The way to bring attention to metal-laden poultry is to get them out of Business and into the general news sections, as Sam Zagoria recommends. On the most explosive consumer stories the Post sometimes does this, providing an excellent combination of intelligent reporting and prominent play. Morton Mintz’s series this spring on the ongoing Dalkon Shield scandal was one such front-page success. Covering the Maryland banking crisis, an entire squadron of Post reporters made an obvious effort to explain how consumers’ savings and communities’ stability had been endangered by egregious mismanagement. The paper also supplied useful guidance as to how readers should react to the confusing
But these occasional displays of superior journalism only make the Post‘s frequent oversights more regrettable. They also raise the question of how a consumer story sometimes does get into the spotlight. The near collapse of a neighboring state’s banking system would probably make it every time. Why, though, did faulty steering mechanisms in Mazda cars recently end up at the top of the “Federal Report” page in National? And why was there outstanding coverage of brake problems in GM’s X-cars? The answer is simple: an official authority, namely, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, investigated the cases and announced that these were big consumer stories. (Even so, putting the Mazda story in the “Federal Report,” a collection of bureaucratic news, and under the column heading “Inside NHTSA,” is only slightly more likely to catch the typical reader’s eye than if the article were buried in the back of Business.)
Several Post employees confirm that once a consumer issue receives attention from the federal government, it often gets assigned to a reporter and played more prominently than it might otherwise. Politics puts a little backbone in that “soft” beat. Canadian raspberries become hot news as soon as the International Trade Commission gets involved.
This spring, Sari Horwitz turned in some solid reporting on the widely publicized dangers of all-terrain three-wheel vehicles. According to numerous accounts, the vehicles have been responsible for injuries to riders, especially children. Explaining why her stories didn’t make the front page of Business—let alone the A section—Horwitz says, “It wasn’t really considered news because there was no official recall and no official investigation.” In other words, the Post provides little incentive for an enterprising reporter to pursue the story of a dangerous product before people actually get hurt and the feds decide to hold hearings. You wonder how reporters are supposed to cover non-enforcement of regulatory laws if the issue only becomes “news” once it receives the government’s blessing as such.
At the Post, the bias toward officially sanctioned consumer news is only one part of a larger syndrome—widely acknowledged by the staff—that favors coverage of national politics over all else. Even Leonard Downie concedes that there is “a natural inclination for this paper to give political, governmental, and diplomatic stories a lot of play. We are constantly trying to go against this tendency in order to give consumer stories, or even human interest stories, more emphasis.”
The same syndrome affects the direction and success of individual reporters’ careers. Metro and Business reporters tend to be treated as second-class citizens at the Post; the path to real recognition inevitably leads to the National or Foreign staffs. Moreover, reporters who pursue major investigations in areas outside of politics, such as consumer affairs, tend to receive only sporadic encouragement at best. Morton Mintz’s career is instructive in this context.
Known as the “dean of consumer reporting,” Mintz, 63, broke the story of the health risks of Thalidomide in 1962. He wrote a widely heralded book on the drug manufacturing business which, along with Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, helped ignite national interest in consumer issues. But several people familiar with the Post concurred in interviews that Mintz’s work, while occasionally given prominent play over the years, has never earned him the respect accorded less-skilled reporters specializing in politics.
“Mintz had the best network of consumer-oriented groups,” says a former Post reporter who also wrote about consumer affairs. “He was the lightning rod for these groups. . . the Drew Pearson/Jack Anderson of consumerism. Yet [senior Post editors] systematically diverted him from that role.” Today, Mintz, who declines comment on this matter, is thought of as an isolated veteran who gets only rare opportunities, such as the Dalkon Shield series, to demonstrate his considerable talent.
The Post came into its own by breaking open Watergate and helping to bring down Richard Nixon. An understandable, and frequently constructive, pressure pervades the newspaper to live up to that standard—to uncover official misconduct, to get the next “holy shit” story, as Bob Woodward himself puts it. This goal, however, has its dark side as well. It creates a moral setting in which revealing scandal and tracking the relationships of the politically powerful are the greatest goods. Forgotten are the people who are supposed to benefit from the insight a major newspaper can provide. Matters of day-to-day concern to readers become filler for the back of the Business section.
Great stories are waiting out there. The Post could easily devote some of its vast energies to prompting recalls—and truly protecting consumers—rather than merely reciting the grim numbers after the fact. By failing to take on the problem of defective products in a systematic way, the Post has passed up an opportunity to expose the corporate culture which tolerates risks to consumers and shamelessly covers up dangerous failures.