e-mail us
Greed isn’t good, especially packaged as news


ABC -- the same network that can’t seem to get its act together on when to air “Nothing Sacred,” or how to promote it -- had no trouble allotting a coveted 10 p.m. EST slot and creating a big P.R. splash for what was possibly the most reprobate hour of television “news” programming in some time. I refer to John Stossel’s Feb. 3 celebration of “Greed.”

While there’s much to be said for an informed public discussion of the merits of capitalism, this wasn’t it. Instead, Stossel’s hourlong program -- billed, mind you, as an ABC news special -- was devoted to debunking the notions that owners have a responsibility to workers and multibillionaires ought to donate to charity. The closest thing to “balance” was Stossel’s ambush of AFL-CIO union chief John Sweeney by asking if he’d ever turned down a raise.

Surprise! He hadn’t. And, of course, it follows that the labor movement is misguided in suggesting that corporate overlords shouldn’t make out like bandits while the wages of front-line workers stagnate. For those who don’t see the connection, I guess you just aren’t looking hard enough (it must be obvious, since Stossel didn’t stop to explain it).

From start to finish, Stossel’s kerygma was that greed is good -- it creates wealth, produces jobs and makes people happy. The only dissenting notes came in the form of Stossel’s own straw man questions to his chosen “experts” -- a CEO dubbed “America’s toughest boss” and an academic so in love with capitalism that he makes Ayn Rand look like Leon Trotsky.

The night before, ABC’s regular news magazine, “20/20,” gave Stossel a segment as a promo for his special. During it, Stossel presented Fr. Robert Sirico, president of something called the “Acton Institute,” as an expert on the moral obligations of corporations. Sirico told Stossel that it’s A-OK for companies to jettison workers in pursuit of profits.

What Stossel didn’t say is that the “Acton Institute” is Sirico’s one-man band, and that Stossel himself has been a speaker at some of Sirico’s events. That conflict of interest alone is potentially enough to impeach the integrity of the report; at a bare minimum, it should have been communicated to viewers.

In the interests of full disclosure, Sirico was speaking in defense of Briggs and Stratton, an engine manufacturer that filed a $30 million libel suit against NCR for reporting on the company’s decision to lay off workers.

Among many moments to choose from, my personal nominee for the journalistic low ebb of Stossel’s special was his worshipful account of how his own boss, Disney CEO Michael Eisner, had increased the company’s net worth by billions and billions. As a member of the press myself, I felt like taking a shower as soon as the credits rolled.

Likewise, my nod for peak moment of absurdity goes to when one of Stossel’s guests said “without a doubt” that junk bond king Michael Milken had done more for humanity than Mother Teresa. Even setting aside the economic trauma Milken’s leveraged buyout craze caused (as well as his conviction for securities fraud), members of Stossel’s anti-philanthropy crowd need to get their stories straight -- Milken has doled out gazillions to charitable causes in Los Angeles.

Finally, consider this: Last November, when the Vancouver, British Columbia, -based Media Foundation tried to buy time on one of the major networks to promote “Buy Nothing Day” -- its campaign to encourage people to opt out of the traditional day after Thanksgiving spending spree -- it got a unanimous cold shoulder. According to Extra! magazine, CBS told the group that its ad was “in opposition to the current economic policies of the United States.” An NBC exec told the Wall Street Journal, “We don’t want to take any advertising that’s inimical to our legitimate business interests.”

So, while ABC is willing to pony up its own resources for a gee, whiz! treatment of the socially therapeutic value of greed, none of the major networks will even sell time for an opposing view.

The next time you hear some network news honcho pontificating about journalism’s sacred trust, remember this moment, and listen for the sound of cash registers in the background.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. Reach him at jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 1998