Steve Forbes and his fortune are running for President. The media dutifully report the swelling political advertising budget that has raised him in the polls ahead of other Republican primary candidates, and surveys show him second to Dole in some early primary states. But because Forbes has no voting record and has held no public service positions of any consequence, how can reporters get a handle on him? Inasmuch as his career has so far climaxed with the inherited editorship of Forbes magazine (its motto, “Capitalist tool”), why not examine that journalistic enterprise?
The press, which always complains about soporific presidential campaigns, should welcome Forbes’s inadvertent contribution of a major issue to national politics–the power of money over the media. More than any other candidate, Steve Forbes has written on regulatory and business matters. His political philosophy is, put concisely, Corporations Uber Alles. Progressives should wish him center stage -in the presidential sweepstakes this year—that is, if the media make a wider public assessment of his zillions of written words.
Here, let’s consider one formula for Forbes’s profitability: Prepare a major feature with a pronounced bias, notify in advance the companies that have a vested interest in its slant and solicit their advertisements. This approach has become a time-tested commercial success. For example, in its June 26, 1989, issue Forbes devoted a full page to soliciting insurance company ads for a special supplement labeled “Insurers Outnumbered,” which was scheduled for the October 16, 1989, issue. The enticement worked. The insurance supplement brought in nearly $ 1 50,000, and other insurance company ads throughout the magazine generated over $300,000 more, calculating from Forbes’s advertising rate card. Just coincidentally, the October 16 issue had a cover story devoted to a lengthy assault on lawyers who represent injured people against corporate negligence and crime. Full of concocted data, sophomoric prejudice and hatred of the civil justice system in America, it was just what most insurance companies would have ordered.
That auction of Forbes’s diminished integrity led to similar sales of its news and feature pages—backed by fawning editorials—in subsequent years. Two of the most aggressive insurance companies when it comes to weakening victims’ rights, Aetna and A.I.G., greatly enlarged their ad space in Forbes. Many of those ads called for legislation to regulate juries and judges so that victims of defective cars, drugs, medical devices and toxic chemicals would be blocked from discovery of evidence and adequate compensation.
One of the numerous restrictions on tort law these two companies want is a $250,000 lifetime cap for pain and suffering awards—no matter how serious the injury or how terrible the wrongdoing. (Note, by contrast, that in 1994 A.I.G.’s chief executive officer made $250,000 a week. every week of the year, without any pain or suffering.) In its continual fib-filled articles on the subject, Forbes never mentions state insurance department data on the total amount of money paid out in both verdicts and settlements in any recent year for product defects and medical malpractice. That figure, plus uninsured payouts, is less than S7 billion, or less than the combined annual profits of Shell Oil and Intel. This puts the lie to Forbes’s claim of $80 billion in direct and $300 billion in indirect costs.
Of course, Forbes does not even recognize that tort law compensates innocent people, deters business recklessness and leads to preventive safety standards. One of the other “markets” it has tapped is the atomic power industry, whose profile it has boosted with assertions right out of the industry’s propaganda. This mercantile pheromone attracted more advertising from nuclear power companies and the manufacturers of risky power plants. Critics have found it difficult to have letters to the editor published after such brazen displays of cash-register journalism.
Steve Forbes’s journalistic practices are emblematic of a general trend that is freezing out talented reporters who would like to inform their readers about the many dimensions of undisclosed corporate abuses in our society. Thus; Forbes’s candidacy could be made the vehicle for a national debate about the selling of the First Amendment, the censoring of America, the commercialization of speech by the rich and powerful to stifle the public’s right to know (on time) and to respond, and the wildest communications merger-mania in American history.
These obstacles to democracy have been documented by Ben Bagdikian in The Media Monopoly, Gloria Steinem in Ms.’s marvelous declaration of independence from advertisers and Michael Jacobson and Laurie Mazur’s excellent but largely ignored new book, Marketing Madness. Even “respectable” newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times have marginalized such criticisms. Now that Forbes personifies these issues of money and media in the presidential campaign, the media do not have to crusade; they simply have to do their job, which is to report. This means just showing what Steve Forbes has been doing since he graduated from Princeton in 1970 and joined Papa Forbes’s money machine.
First Amendment scholar C. Edwin Baker has written that “advertisers, not governments, are the primary censors of media content in the United States today.” In 1992, Richard Kipling, the hiring editor of the Los Angeles Times, told Ronald Collins, the author of Dictating Content: How Advertising Pressure Can Corrupt a Free Press (from the Washington-based Center for the Study of Commercialism): “I get calls from reporters across the country who are concerned—fearful, actually—about the increasing pressures to do stories pleasing to advertisers…. They’re panicked that their careers are in jeopardy, that they have only one choice—do the advertiser-friendly stories or join the burgeoning ranks of the journalistic unemployed:’
Well, Steve Forbes has emerged from his corporate castle where he is the monarch. He is at large in New Hampshire, Iowa and elsewhere. Journalists of America, arouse yourselves! The chains you break for us are also your own!