|“How often have you seen or heard of a newspaper editorial or column or…talking head criticizing grave corporate crime or misconduct, and, particularly, the executives personally responsible for such crime or misconduct?”
“I can’t remember the most recent occasion.”
An exchange between the writer and Assistant Attorney General James K. Robinson, Chief of the Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice, February 17, 1999.
Of course James Robinson was stumped: He couldn’t recall media criticism of corporate immorality because so little of it occurs—none, in fact, in many major newspapers. Year after year after year, leading mainstream opinion-shapers shun the subject. Moreover, they generally prefer not to admit the shunning. It’s freedom of the press.
These conclusions arise from a survey early last year of columnists and editorial writers that was created to determine the extent of commentary in the print and electronic press on “immoral corporate behavior.” Included in this category were incidents involving corporate crime as well as corporate conduct that “significantly harms the environment and human life, safety or health, or defrauds federal, state or local governments or large groups of individuals.”
In all, 124 editorial writers, columnists and commentators were queried about what they had said about egregious corporate behavior during the 10 years ending December 1998. Examples of news reports about companies’ misconduct were included with the query. From the responses I received, it’s fair to say that it’s a rare day in 3,650 days when the national media expose Americans to opinions on corporate wrongdoing.
Generalizations, however, can be misleading. For example, while it’s extremely unusual for The New York Times to comment on corporate morality, it did so in “Corporations and Conscience,” an editorial published in December 1998. The Times, building on a Washington Post exposé of General Motors’ and Ford’s dealings in Nazi Germany, declared certain repressive foreign regimes “so heinous that simply to continue making profits under them is reprehensible.”
When such criticism does occur, it’s more often on editorial pages far from New York and Washington. In 1998, for example, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, led by Editorial Director David Hawpe, blasted a mainstay of Kentucky’s economy. That paper’s 14-editorial series began:
“COAL is an outlaw industry. It is now, and it always has been.
“COAL is the closest thing to brute, unrepentant, late 19th century capitalism that we have left in American life.”
Here is a summary of survey responses and related findings:
William F. Buckley, Jr., was one of four nationally syndicated columnists who addressed the “why” of my inquiry regarding the relative silence on the topic of corporate immorality. He did so not in correspondence but publicly—in a piece skewering The Nation, which originally had commissioned me to do the survey—with the acerbity one might expect: “Are conservatives…ethically callous about business delinquencies? It is true that they don’t feature heavily in conservative commentary. But there is a humdrumness to business malpractice that simply makes it all less eye-catching than misbehavior by individuals….” He concluded: The Nation, “doggedly leftist,” “wishes to hurt business,” in contrast to his National Review which “wishes business to prosper.” (His column ran in February 1999, shortly before the survey was completed and weeks before I’d written my report. In the end, The Nation decided not to publish it.)
Cal Thomas, a former Vice President of the Moral Majority, also had a query to offer. “Have my liberal colleagues written about some of the things about which I’ve written or, more specifically, taken my position on them? Probably not.” In 1997, Thomas advocated closing all public schools. He pronounced children to be “raw material,” and declared the time had come to “withdraw this material” from public education.
A.M. Rosenthal, then of The New York Times, made his point with quotes from columns he had written for nearly 12 years. Almost from his start as a columnist, he said, “I wrote consistently about the economic benefits to dictatorships…that come from American companies, the fact that American import-export trade profits the people who run the political and religious jails, not their victims, that the cash register has become the dominant factor in American trade, not American principle….”
John Leo wrote back to remind me, ”[M]y column deals primarily with social trends.”
Three Washington heavy hitters (and non-responders to this survey), all published and syndicated by The Washington Post, have made remarkable pronouncements relating to corporate immorality:
George F. Will endorses “punishing by shaming,” a practice in which the names of “drug users, drunken drivers or men who solicit prostitutes or are delinquent in child support” are published or broadcast. Corporate wrongdoers? They didn’t make Will’s cut.
Robert J. Samuelson: “Big business has been brought to heel politically.” Campaign financing? Not to worry: It amounted, in 1996, to only “one-twentieth of one percent of the gross domestic product.”
Charles Krauthammer: Only “Luddites” protest genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH) in their milk, such milk being “perfectly normal.” (In March 1999, a European Union scientific panel recommended more study into whether milk from BGH-treated cows increases the risk of cancer in humans.)
By contrast, the relatively obscure William Pfaff, writing from Paris, insightfully explored “the injuries contemporary corporate business values have inflicted.”
The only editorial page editor of a “national” paper who replied was Janet Clayton, of the Los Angeles Times. She let me know that “On our op-ed page we regularly run Alex Cockburn [the Nation columnist]. I’m sure you know he delights in savaging…‘corporate crime and misconduct.’”
Meanwhile, among the non-responders—a large majority of those queried—was The Wall Street Journal, whose publisher, Peter R. Kann, annually lauds his editorial page in an op-ed report to readers. In 1997 he boasted that the page “does not shrink from discussing morality.” Indeed, for seven years now, a torrent of Journal editorials has denounced the morality of the President. However, during the 28 years Robert L. Bartley has edited the opinion page, no editorial could be found that impugned the morality of the many persons responsible for the corporate crimes reported by the Journal’s own reporting staff.
Journal news columns surround the editorial page with so much information on corporate crime that Ralph Nader suggests renaming it “The Crime Street Journal.” The Nation’s Robert Sherrill tested and verified the Nader assertion by monitoring Journal coverage throughout 1996. Among the examples from Sherrill’s research that appeared in the story, “A Year in Corporate Crime,” in 1997, were these:
Lucas Industries pleaded guilty to falsifying quality records for F-18 fighter gearboxes, hiding defects the Navy blamed “for 71 emergency landings and several in-flight fires, as well as the loss of an F-18 during the Gulf War.” Lucas was fined $106 million.
Archer Daniels Midland pleaded guilty to conspiring to fix prices for a livestock feed supplement and citric acid. ADM was fined $100 million.
The Washington Post has repeatedly excoriated cigarette industry conduct, but I could find no editorial addressing other grave corporate immorality.
Eight editorial page editors responded, primarily from newspapers that focus their attention, for the most part, on local- and state-based corporate conduct.
Cynthia Tucker, Editorial Page Editor at the Atlanta Constitution, provided notable examples related to my query. In one case, the paper chastised DuPont management for suppressing adverse evidence at a Georgia trial centered on a crop-destroying fungicide. In another instance, federal fraud charges against Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corporation were commented upon, as they were also by the Providence Journal editorial page, edited by Robert Whitcomb. The Constitution also repeatedly attacked LCP Chemicals for dumping “staggering” amounts of mercury into a creek near Brunswick, Georgia. If 140 short-term jobs had to be lost to prevent frightful “permanent health risks to the many,” so be it, the editorial declared. In the end, LCP shuttered the plant and pleaded guilty to what a federal judge termed “the most arrogant and egregious violation of the environmental protection laws in this country.” Three LCP executives were convicted of “purposefully” releasing hazardous materials and “knowingly endangering the health of LCP workers.”
Frank Michel at the Houston Chronicle noted that the paper had published recent editorials, columns and op-ed pieces criticizing several major companies. Conoco was targeted for doing “business with rogue Middle Eastern states.” Champion International’s “apparent double standard for safety precautions as they apply to Hispanic workers vs. Anglo workers” was the topic of an editorial, as were the “many flags-of-convenience merchant ship operators…that ignore health and safety of seamen,” and Houston Power & Light’s “disturbing mismanagement of a nuclear power plant.”
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Joann Byrd counted at least half a dozen editorials each year that “come down on every corporation that we learn has harmed the environment, imperiled human life or health or defrauded the taxpayers, and/or consumers, and/or ratepayers, and/or our grandchildren….” The Boston Globe’s H.D.S. Greenway pointed to the paper’s “tough” treatment of General Electric because of its “brownfields” in the western part of Massachusetts, and he recounted the role the paper played when “we turned back an attempt to build an environment-threatening dump out in Northfield, a small town on the Connecticut River.”
Other newspapers, such as the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, assured us that corporate misconduct was an occasional topic on their editorial pages. Bill Hall, Editorial Page Editor of the Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune, left little doubt as to his inclination when he sniffs corporate wrongdoing in his neighborhood. “Helped only by a sidekick,” Hall wrote, he has been “pasting the SOB’s” for 34 years. “[W]e write 14 editorials and five columns a week, many [on] corporate greed—especially as it involves pollution, car safety, and consumer fraud. I don’t know how many hundred we have done,” he said.
No such toughness was claimed in three large Midwest cities where editorial page editors admitted to not being stirred by corporate misconduct: “We generally focus…on the policy implications of events and trends…” wrote Thomas J. Bray, of The Detroit News. Richard Hood, at The Kansas City Star, hasn’t “editorialized on the subject” since taking charge in 1972. And Russell Pulliam, at The Indianapolis Star, told us he “can’t recall any [editorials] that specifically address corporate immorality.”
Occasionally, guest critiques involving corporate behavior appear in other newspapers distant from New York and Washington. For example, in 1997 in the Chicago Tribune, John E. Swanson, a former member of Dow Corning’s Business Ethics Committee, wrote an op-ed about the silicon breast implant debacle: The company, he said, “has only itself to blame” and its bankruptcy “is no absolution for ultimate moral or financial liability.” About a decade ago, a public interest group leader writing in The San Diego Union-Tribune protested the presence of “CEO’s, presidents and directors for environmentally irresponsible corporations…on the boards of many national environmental groups.” And in the mid-1990’s, a critic of the legal fiction of the corporation as a “person”—a person liable to punishment of capital, not capital punishment—wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the corporation is incapable of “‘personal responsibility’ or patriotism either.”
Truck traffic in Laredo, Texas. Aerial photography by J. Michael Short.
Big Trucks, Bad Pollution and Commentators’ Silence
The trigger for doing the survey was a stunning episode of sustained corporate immorality. Its toll on people and the environment was enormous, and its visible impact on media opinion-molders zero.
During the last decade, some 1.3 million large trucks poisoned the air everyone breathes with illegal emissions of millions of tons of nitrogen oxide. NOx helps to form pollutants—smog (ozone), soot and dust—that can cause premature death and numerous ills, including asthma attacks and bronchitis. The elderly and children are particularly at risk. NOx also helps to cause acid rain. During 1998 alone, the trucks released 1.3 million extra tons of NOx, a ton each, on average, and almost 10 pounds for every man, woman and child in America. It would have taken an additional 65 million automobiles to produce as much.
In October 1998 the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department jointly released these facts, and many more, about how the seven largest manufacturers of heavy-duty diesel engines had illegally increased noxious emissions in order to increase fuel efficiency five to eight percent.
This was a classic trade of private gain for public pain. The tradeoff was made possible by a computerized “defeat” device governing emission controls. In stop-and-go driving it turned on the emission controls, limiting release of NOx emissions in testing stations where such driving was simulated. But in highway driving, the device automatically disabled the controls, saving fuel while at the same time as much as tripling legally permitted outputs of NOx. Carol M. Browner, the EPA administrator, referred to them as “‘deceit’ devices.”
Beginning in 1989, Caterpillar and Detroit Diesel had become the first of the seven manufacturers of heavy-duty diesel engines to offer this device. Inevitably, competitors felt pressure to fall in line. Mack Trucks and its partner, Renault Vehicules Industriels, s.a., followed, then Cummins Engine, and, finally, Navistar and Volvo Truck.
Once the deceit was uncovered and the companies faced litigation, the manufacturers consented to a settlement. Browner hailed it as “the largest action ever taken under the Clean Air Act.” The companies agreed to pay $83.4 million in penalties, $41 million to reimburse government expenses, and to spend $1 billion for environmental improvements, mostly building cleaner engines. They would reduce pollution in their existing engines and recall large pickup trucks equipped with the device. By 2003, the government said, it expects the settlement will cut diesel NOx emissions by one-third, and by 2025 will have prevented 75 million tons of NOx pollution.
Even though major news outlets regularly ignore or slight news of corporate crime and misconduct, the settlement of the EPA charges made page one in The New York Times and Washington Post. The Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and CBS News all carried solid accounts. Thus editorial writers, columnists and talking heads were staring at an obvious and rich lode of content. Yet not one editorial or commentary that mined this news could be found.
Major environmental groups afforded media commentators additional golden—and missed—opportunities to scrutinize the diligence of the EPA. By permitting the engines to operate until rebuilt hundreds of thousands of miles later, the watchdog groups protested, the agency evaded the Clean Air Act’s requirement for a recall, thereby imperiling the nation’s health. Later, in a still-pending federal class action lawsuit, truckers sued the manufacturers for $1 billion. They alleged “a level of wholesale corporate fraud almost beyond imagination,” in the words of Albert H. Meyerhoff, a long-time public interest lawyer, before he joined the law firm representing the truckers.
The lawsuit cast an even harsher light on the EPA. In 1991, John Deere Company informed the agency that the devices were being used, and Cummins and Caterpillar complained subsequently that the devices were “illegal.” The EPA didn’t respond. In 1993, John Deere complained formally that the technology was illegal. This time, the agency indicated “that it would look into the matter.” In 1996, an independent investigation, commissioned by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), established that the devices allowed NOx emissions far exceeding those allowed under California as well as federal law. In 1997, CARB notified the EPA of this result. When the EPA announced its settlement in 1998, the agency claimed to have discovered the emission problems “last year.” Meyerhoff’s law firm, Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, searched databases for news reports and commentary. It found neither. While the press was ignoring the revelation of EPA nonfeasance, Congress was not. An “extensive investigation,” a House Commerce Committee staff report said in late March, “revealed a pattern of gross negligence and striking indifference by EPA throughout the early and mid-l990’s to the very real possibility—now a known certainty—that diesel truck engines were emitting pollutants far in excess of regulatory standards.” Despite “repeated warnings,” EPA “failed to take any serious action to even investigate [for] more than six years.…”
James Robinson took over the Criminal Division at the U.S. Justice Department in June 1998, four months before his boss, Attorney General Janet Reno, and Browner announced the settlement. A long-time authority on corporate crime, he became the first Division Chief to address a Corporate Crime Reporter luncheon.
“Why no criminal prosecution?” I asked him, referring to the diesel case but not citing the evidence that the EPA may have bungled its opportunity to seek one.
“I wasn’t involved and don’t know the answer,” Robinson replied.
Laredo, Texas. Aerial photography by J. Michael Short.
Ignoring Modern Day Villains
Nearly a century ago, in 1907, sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross distinguished “the old authentic sins” from “impersonal” sins. He described these new sins as the “multitude of new forms of wrongdoing” in an industrial society that put us “at each other’s mercy.”
In his book, “Sin and Society: An Analysis of Latter-Day Iniquity,” Ross wrote that “the villain most in need of curbing is the respectable, exemplary trusted personage…able from his office chair to pick a thousand pockets, poison a thousand sick, pollute a thousand lives…. It is the great-scale, high-voltage sinner that needs the shackle.”
Ross faulted a public that “beholds sin in a false perspective, seeing peccadilloes as crimes, and crimes as peccadilloes.” Today, most Americans doubtless see peccadilloes as peccadilloes but too few yet see corporate crimes as “crimes” and corporate immorality as “immorality.” Thus the public continues to behold sin in a false perspective. It’s as if workplace and occupational disease deaths don’t outpace murders (56,000 vs. 19,000 in 1998), or the annual cost of corporate and white-collar fraud doesn’t dwarf the cost of burglaries and robberies (hundreds of billions vs. $3.8 billion in 1998), or illegal NOx doesn’t pollute the air everyone breathes.
Few editorial writers, columnists or talking heads will claim responsibility for perpetuating this false perspective. Neither, of course, will politicians, academics or clerics. But that’s another story.
Morton Mintz, a 1964 Nieman Fellow, is a former Washington Post reporter and a former Chair of the Fund for Investigative Journalism. He writes for tompaine.com and is author of “At Any Cost: Corporate Greed, Women and the Dalkon Shield.”