Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
When I see allegedly adult people raising hell with government-sponsored health care on behalf of the health insurance companies, I wonder what ever became of the healthy American tradition of distrusting trusts.
Equally troubling is the benign mainstream press, which seems quick to criticize and probe big government while looking the other way at the predatory conduct of big business. It was not always that way.
Throughout much of American history, there has been a give and take between those who wanted more government and those who wanted less. But in almost every era, there was a uniform distrust of big business, big banks, cartels and great corporations and trusts.
As a young reporter, I (and many in my generation) sought to follow in the footsteps of the great journalists who took on the titans of the Gilded Age in the early 20th century: Upton Sinclair, whose expose of the meat packing industry, The Jungle, helped give us the FDA; Lincoln Steffens, who exposed the political corruption of the Tweed Ring; and Ida Tarbell, whose probe of John D. Rockefeller’s huge trust, the Standard Oil Company, led to its breakup.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt called these reporters “muckrakers,” but while he criticized them he also said, “I hail as a benefactor...every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform or in book, magazine or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in turn remembers that that attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.”
Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, both Republicans, became trust busters using some of these exposes to take on the great oligarchies like U.S. Steel and Standard Oil that were violating the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which prohibited monopolies in restraint of trade. And the muckraking as well as the trust busting led to the stronger, Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914 which is still on the books but no longer enforced. Franklin Roosevelt limited the power of those he called “economic royalists,” with tight regulation.
I came into the Washington scene in 1966 as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press (part of the Knight chain) during a more recent era of muckraking that exposed the behavior of corporations that quite literally were killing people and the environment. One of my early friends, Morton Mintz, then of the Washington Post, challenged the drug company that was about to get FDA approval to sell in the U.S. a drug named thalidomide, an anti-nausea drug for pregnant women.
It had been widely used in Europe. But Mintz learned from a valiant FDA researcher, Frances Kelsey, who was at odds with her agency, that the drug seemed to be causing horribly deformed children in Europe. The U.S. escaped that scourge thanks to Kelsey and Mintz’s reporting.
At about the same time, on Capitol Hill, with encouragement from the activist press, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee used his Judiciary Anti-trust and Monopoly subcommittee, created as a result of the Sherman Act, to investigate and expose the price-fixing and monopolistic practices of the steel, auto and drug industries.
Also in the Senate, Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut brought Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, before his committee to testify in the spring of 1963, a year before her death, and recognized her as the founding mother of the environmental movement. Her books and Ribicoff’s hearings into the chemical industry’s use of pesticides to poison fish and wildlife set the stage for the Endangered Species Act.
I remember going to a press conference to challenge the experts paid by the American Chemical Society who insisted that DDT did not, as Carson proved, threaten the extinction of birds. Eventually, the use of DDT was outlawed.
But Ribicoff’s committee became more famous when muckraker Ralph Nader came before it to challenge the biggest corporation of them all, General Motors, whose car, the rear-engine Corvair, was, as Nader’s book put, Unsafe at Any Speed. When it was learned that GM hired private detectives to tail Nader, the company was taken to the woodshed by Ribicoff. That hearing, and Nader, helped launch what became the consumer movement.
I was in an awkward position, for Nader was anathema in Detroit. But to my paper’s credit, my editors reluctantly agreed that if I were to cover the auto industry from Washington, Nader was part of that story. Besides, I had a great resource for covering the auto industry and the environmental and consumer movements - Senator Philip A. Hart of Michigan who had taken over the Anti-trust and Monopoly Subcommittee when Kefauver died.
Hart was less flamboyant than the tall Tennessean and more gentle, but his style helped him overcome Southern opposition to pass one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act.
Hart had married into great auto industry wealth but his committee, after a slow start, eventually surpassed Kefauver in investigating the growing concentration of monopoly power in many industries, including autos. One of his investigators, for example, exposed the conspiracy in which GM, Firestone and what is now Exxon combined to kill the electric street cars in many cities to sell more gas-guzzling, tire-using GM buses.
With the help of muckraker Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death), Hart exposed the fraud, cheating and corruption in the funeral industry. And he sponsored and succeeded in passing the Truth In Packaging Act which today guards consumers against fraudulent claims on packages.
In 1968, after four years of hearings on economic concentration, Hart, a believer in free enterprise, told Mintz, “We tend to forget what antitrust is all about. It is about power - political, social and economic power....What our corporate executives want is not competition...but the anarchy of unrestrained pricing...”
These were times of sixties activism and goaded by congressional investigating committees, Nader and his followers and aggressive consumer reporting, the Justice Department anti-trust division, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, had become more active. Under Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his successors, the division filed complaints against corporations like ITT. But the Nixon presidency and his Attorney General John Mitchell ended that suit under suspicious circumstances. And the Vietnam War took center stage.
Since then, Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Republicans Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, made big government rather than big business the problem. And the great trusts, in energy, the media, banking, insurance, drugs, health care and technology have become more powerful, more wealthy and more domineering than at any time during the Gilded Age.
When is the last time anyone seriously challenged the concentration of monopoly power in newspapers, television or, for that matter, Microsoft? Who has pursued, with the same vigor as a sex scandal, the role of the insurance and drug companies and their paid-for political allies in corrupting the campaign for true health care reform? Who has challenged the possibility that health care may be better without the powerful insurance companies?
One answer is that the rest of the press merely shrugs when, for example, Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Democrat turned Republican, who became CEO of the drug industry lobby, at $2.5 million, after pushing through the Medicare drug legislation that further enriched the drug companies. Time was that such conflicts of interest were frowned on and even illegal.
One has to go to the blogs or commentators like Rachel Maddow, to learn how the industry millions distorted such issues as health care and climate change. What has happened to the press and most of the television reporters when they fail to get angry or even report and probe, for example, the profits of the five leading health insurance companies last year that ranged from $292 million to nearly $3 billion, and that the salaries of the CEOs ranged from $3 million to $24 million? Surely some of that could have gone to actual health care.
I have seen only one mainstream story on the power of the insurance industry, a lengthy investigative piece by Chad Terhune and Keith Epstein, in the Auust 6 Business Week, which concluded that “the health insurers have already won,” that is, they “have succeeded in redefining the terms of the reform debate to such a degree that no matter what specifics....the insurance industry will emerge more profitable.”
How did they do it? With millions of dollars in campaign contributions, more millions in lobbying, including personal visits with key Democrats and the president, by UnitedHealth’s multimillion dollar a year CEO, Stephen J. Hemsley. And slick television advertising which claims the insurance and drug companies are all for reform.
All of this under the noses of most of the sleepwalking media. I tried for weeks to get the Washington Post’s lead health care reporter, Ceci Connolly, to write an explainer about single-payer; she promised but didn’t keep her word. She was the first to agree to meet with industry leaders at the salons planned by the Post’s publisher but which were scrubbed when other reporters leaked the plan to bloggers.
Perhaps one reason that the mainstream press no longer cares about the power of big corporations, is they are a part of the problem. They make more than decent salaries; their savings plans probably include health insurance and drug company stocks, which were up sharply at word (from Ceci Connolly, among others) that the public option may be off the health care table. And, of course, most of the owners of mainstream media are conservative and one does not bite the hand.
The press (especially television) loves finding and exacerbating conflicts within the political parties without probing the issues themselves. Or reporters will faithfully record lies as simply one side of the story, without saying that the claims are lies. (That’s left to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and liberal blogs.)
Sometimes, as I’ve written here, there is only one side of a story when the source is clearly a nut. And some nuts should be ignored or labeled as kooks. The press coverage confuses the issue, then reports that the issue is confusing.
No wonder, then, that the screamers at health care forums get the coverage. No wonder that the press takes polls that suggest the support for the public option is declining, as if the press coverage wasn’t responsible. Is it any wonder that so many Americans are suckered into believing that the big insurance and drug companies will look after their health coverage better than government?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lois Cochran: Life is Good