The Sport of Business/The Business of Sport

By Robert Jensen

Published in Media Ethics · April, 2000

Spring 2000, Vol. 11, No. 2

It is often asserted by conservatives, and widely taken as a fact by the general public, that the American news media are “anti-business.” It’s a rather silly claim, given the capitalist/managerial framework in which U.S. journalists work, but it is understandable why right-wingers ride the claim for its propaganda value in this very business-run society.

More surprising is that many journalists believe their reporting is highly critical of business. While they would reject the label “anti-business,” many do see themselves and their ethical responsibilities as being tough on business.

In this essay, I want to point out just how impoverished that analysis is by using an analogy to sports reporting. Through this issue we can see one of the most serious moral failings of the contemporary news media — the inability to challenge the centralized power of corporate capitalism.

Let’s start with that conservative critique, which tends to go something like this: Journalists come in two political shades, liberal and communist. The people who now run newsrooms cut their teeth on the radicalism of the 1960s and hate business. So, journalists unfairly and unethically take every opportunity to bash corporations and the hard-working folks who run them.

This is, on the surface, an odd claim, given that the news media are themselves corporations. It is not clear why the people who own the American media would hire and promote employees who have dedicated themselves to the destruction of the system that enriches them. Despite this obvious problem with the argument, conservatives continue to claim that journalists are anti-business.

While there is some truth to one element of the claim — that is, journalists can sometimes be mean to business people, like they can be mean to politicians, celebrities and others — these critics miss the bigger picture and, therefore, end up with a ludicrous conclusion. Journalists are not anti-business. They are pro-business, not because of their own political inclinations but because of the values of the system in which they work.

For some reason, many people have trouble accepting this elementary point. An analogy to sports journalists, where ideology is not so rigidly imposed and it is easier to see the way the system works, might help.

Sports and business are in many ways similar in American news media (I’m talking specifically about newspapers, though most of this essay applies to radio and television as well). Each has its own section in the newspaper, and news concerning each sometimes spills over into the main news section of the paper. Each has reporters assigned to the section, though general news reporters sometimes cover related stories.

So, let’s start by thinking about the day-to-day content of the sports section. Much of the section is devoted to statistics and standings, the data fans want in order to track their specific interests. There also is coverage of the day’s events — stories about the personalities, games and matches that make up the guts of the section. The paper also runs think pieces and trend stories about various sports and the nature of sport. And, finally, there are columnists who are given a fair amount of latitude to spout off about whatever they please.

On any given day, in various parts of the section, there is likely to be criticism of sports — of the league officials, owners, or specific players who have committed various kinds of sins against the fans and the higher ideals of sport. Sports writers, especially columnists, can be among the most vicious in a newsroom, relentlessly going after their targets — including the rich and powerful — with venom and glee.

It would be ridiculous, however, to claim that sports writers are anti-sports.

They live and breathe a sports culture. They write for a section devoted solely to that culture. They are subsidized in their work by the very industry they cover (through press boxes, free food, easy access to information, etc.). They are, without exception in my experience, sports lovers. And, of course, readers and critics understand this. When disgruntled readers argue with sports columnists, they don’t accuse them of being anti-sports. They simply say, “You’re a jerk — you’re wrong about that.”

Much the same can be said of newspapers’ business coverage. The business section includes lots of statistics and data (stock tables, etc.) and daily coverage of personalities, companies, and deal-making. There is coverage of the business world’s daily events (which corporations bought what, what earnings or new products are anticipated, which CEO has quit, etc.). along with think pieces and trend stories. Some of the stories can be critical of specific corporations or individual owners. Some of the criticism can be annoying to the just-fired CEO, or the company that would rather have the public (and peers) kept in the dark about some of its problems. It can even be harsh, especially when a corporation has given all business a bad name by egregiously ripping off clients or consumers — although no business reporter or columnists ever writes with the viciousness of a sports writer.

Likewise, business reporters tend to live and breathe business culture. They write for a section devoted solely to that culture. They are subsidized in their work by the entities they cover through a huge PR industry that provides free “information” on a massive scale. They are, without exception in my experience, business lovers.

And, just as the sports reporter almost never steps back and asks, “Just what is going on with sports in this culture — what’s the big picture?” so too the business reporter almost never steps back and asks, “Just what is going on with capitalism in this culture — what’s the big picture?” Sports reporters and business reporters are not critics of the system; at best, they police its boundaries. They report on violations of the rules; they don’t ask questions about the fundamental justice of the rules.

To varying degrees, we all understand this about sports reporters, which is why no one would ever think to label them anti-sports. This probably is because sports, in some sense, doesn’t much matter — it’s just children’s games being played by adults, albeit games that generate incredible profits, and take a lot of our time. In many ways, sports supports the ideology of the culture, both in the values it promotes — aggressive competitiveness and a focus on winning — and in its equally important role in producing a passive, depoliticized population. But sports is not at the core of the culture’s ideology. Capitalism is.

Everyone understands the central importance to their well being of how an economy is structured. Throughout the past two centuries, people have realized that the economic system–particularly capitalism, in its increasingly concentrated corporate form–under which they live can be detrimental to their well being. People have been murdered, gone to jail, and been deported in struggles to resist the injustices of their economic system. Throughout the past two centuries, many people have realized that capitalism, especially in its increasingly concentrated corporate form, is detrimental to their well being. People have been murdered, gone to jail, and been exiled in a struggle to resist the injustice of that economic system. Even though it may seem that, in the post-Cold War era, capitalism has “won,” smart capitalists understand that victory is always tentative. Today, working people and the unions that once created a channel for working people’s power are on the defensive, but thoughtful capitalists know how quickly that can change. Hence the need for intense ideological control and indoctrination.

My own view is that the overtly reactionary publishers and editors who clamp down on any critical reporting, and the right-wing think thanks that attack even mild attempts at critique, are actually working against their own purposes. As corporate America continues to put the screws to Americans, even the most indoctrinated (take, for example, the working-class people who might truly believe that lowering the capital gains tax will create benefits that trickle down to them) will see that the system is stacked against them. And if the picture that the media paint of business is so overwhelmingly positive that it cannot possibly be made to jibe with the experiences of working people, such coverage actually will begin to work against business: The propaganda will be so out of sync with people’s experiences that it will become less effective. (This often happens, for example, on many large university campuses, where administrators talk about being “student-centered” and students, who daily encounter a bureaucracy that has no concern for them, don’t even bother to laugh; they know it is meaningless PR talk.)

In fact, having a business press as feisty as the sports press (while always, of course, staying within the bounds of unquestioned support for the fundamental system), would probably in the long run work in favor of business. The appearance of serious criticism might help preserve the illusion of a democratic society.

All this leaves journalists in a tough spot. Reflexively, they want to deny being anti-business because the ideology of objectivity precludes them from being pro- or anti- anything. At the same time, journalists often think of themselves as doing tough reporting on business. But, as I have argued above, while journalists police the most visible, egregious violations of the rules, they rarely question the rules themselves. Their tough reporting can land a corrupt CEO in jail or result in a company being fined for an environmental infraction, but it doesn’t highlight the basic questions about why we have allowed corporations to acquire so much power and how the routine exercise of that power creates and entrenches inequality.

The ethical challenge for reporters is to make good on the watchdog function they claim is central to the profession. The key question is, watching what or whom? Journalists tend to see themselves as primarily watching government, which historically has had the most power to abuse people in our society. In limited ways, reporters do occasionally fulfill that role, though in certain arenas (most notably foreign policy), reporters almost never challenge policy-makers.

We need to ask, where does real power in this society lie? Where or who else should journalists be watching? The answer, clearly, is where power is most concentrated, which is in the corporations. That means not only reporting on individual corporations, but reporting on the nature of the corporate system — the ever-increasing power of corporations and the way they constrain ordinary people’s lives, both at home and abroad.

Right now, in an age of capitalist triumphalism, journalism has failed miserably at that task. Rather than challenging corporate power, news outlets routinely trumpet the great accomplishments of owners and managers. Claims about the inevitability and universal benefit of markets go uncritiqued. Articulate opponents of so-called “free” trade are treated as cranks. And the inherently anti-democratic nature of corporations (which are, after all, internally structured as top-down hierarchies with no pretense of democracy) cannot be mentioned in polite company.

Journalists have a moral choice to subordinate themselves to corporate power or to challenge it. The institutional structure is set up for subordination; as in other institutions in the culture, there are obvious rewards the come with following power. But journalism is not yet so locked down that good work can’t be done. It takes creativity, ingenuity and courage. The rewards rarely come in terms of money or career advancement. But neither does one have to wait for the afterlife for the reward of knowing that in the struggle of haves and have-nots, one made the right choice.