Reimagining Journalism: The Story of the One Percent

Michael Massing, Reimagining Journalism: The Story of the One Percent. The New York Review of Books, 17 December 2015. “Inequality, the concentration of wealth, the one percent, the new Gilded Age—all became fixtures of national debate thanks in part to the [Occupy Wall Street] protesters who camped out in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan [in 2011]. Even the Republican presidential candidates have felt compelled to address the matter [in 2015 and 2016]. News organizations, meanwhile, have produced regular reports on the fortunes of the wealthy, the struggles of the middle class, and the travails of those left behind. Even amid the outpouring of coverage of rising income inequality, however, the richest Americans have remained largely hidden from view.” This is the first of two articles. The second is How to Cover the One Percent, published in The New York Review of Books on 14 January 2016.

On all sides, billionaires are shaping policy, influencing opinion, promoting favorite causes, polishing their images—and carefully shielding themselves from scrutiny. Journalists have largely let them get away with it. News organizations need to find new ways to lift the veil off the superrich and lay bare their power and influence. Digital technology, with its flexibility, speed, boundless capacity, and ease of interactivity, seems ideally suited to this task, but only if it’s used more creatively than it has been to date.

Consider, for instance, DealBook, the online daily financial report of The New York Times….

DealBook’s founder and editor, Andrew Ross Sorkin, is known for his closeness to Wall Street executives (many of whom serve as sources of information), and it often shows in his weekly column. In one that appeared on October 3, 2011, two weeks after the start of Occupy Wall Street, he explained that he had decided to visit Zuccotti Park after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank:

“Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the CEO asked me. I didn’t have an answer. “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” he continued, clearly concerned. “Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”

After speaking with some of the occupiers, Sorkin concluded that the bankers were not in imminent danger, though he warned that they did have to grapple with the demonstrators’ demands for accountability for the financial crisis and growing inequality.

Sorkin sometimes writes critically of Wall Street (as in a recent column expressing skepticism about the sustainability of the current merger wave), and DealBook as a whole has become far more critical of the financial industry than it once was….

As DealBook’s name indicates, though, its overriding concern is deals, and though its coverage of them provides much useful information for the large number of people working on or investing in Wall Street, the site does not examine the world of the one percent with the vigor and urgency it deserves.

Apart from DealBook, the Times runs many hard-hitting stories about finance flimflam and corporate malpractice. No other American news organization, in fact, does a better job of scrutinizing the actions of the powerful and holding them accountable. The paper has exposed how companies like GE and Apple exploit loopholes to avoid paying taxes, how corporate lobbyists coax favorable deals from state attorneys general [Courting Favor: ‘In a series of articles, Eric Lipton of The New York Times examines the explosion in lobbying of state attorneys general by corporate interests and the millions in campaign donations they now provide.’], how Walmart bribed officials in Mexico. [Two-part series by David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab, published in 2012.] The “Upshot” section offers regular in-depth analysis of inequality in America, and Gretchen Morgenson’s weekly column provides a close look at the many ways in which Wall Street seeks to pad its profits at the expense of everyone else….

It’s encouraging to see the Times devote more resources to covering the wealthy. Even so, its approach seems too limited and scattershot. After running the story about the 158 powerful families [The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election by Nicholas Confessore, Sara Cohen and Karen Yourish, published on 10 October 2015], for instance, the paper moved on, with little follow-up. As a result, the impact of its reporting was not as deep or lasting as it could have been. The problem is hardly limited to the Times. In American journalism as a whole, the coverage of the superrich is far too sporadic, fleeting, and unimaginative to make a real difference. News organizations need to develop a new methodology that can allow them to document the structure of wealth, power, and influence in America—to show how the ultrarich make their money, what they do with it, and to what effect. The coverage needs to be more sustained, ambitious, and broadly conceived. And digital technology can help….

What’s needed, I think, is a more broadly based site [than the DealBook at The New York Times] dedicated to covering the power elite…. A new site with an experienced staff of reporters, editors, and digital whizzes could burrow deep into the world of the one percent and document the remarkable impact they are having on so many areas of American life. As information on them is gathered, it could be incorporated into a database that could become the go-to site for information about the nation’s elite and their power….

…[S]uch a website would offer a full accounting of [Paul Singer’s] far-reaching influence. It would, for instance, delve into his work in the field of education, using it as a springboard into an examination of the close but opaque ties between hedge funds, charter schools, and New York politics. Whichever side one takes in the great debate over charter schools, the movement to promote them has become a potent political force whose activities and backers often remain in the shadows….

Online, I found a…pointed account by the Washington Park Project, a public policy group. Titled “Corruption in Education: Hedge Funds and the Takeover of New York’s Schools,” it was written by Mohammad Khan and Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law professor who ran for governor against Cuomo in 2014. The study offered an eye-opening look at the large sums being spent by what it called “a tiny group of powerful hedge fund executives” seeking to “take over education policy” in the state….

Teachout and Khan argued that the activities of this group stood in the way of addressing a major obstacle to improving public education in New York State—educational inequity….

Teachout and Khan did not, however, explore the question of why. The enthusiasm with which so many hedge fund managers and other Wall Street executives have embraced charter schools remains something of a mystery. Even if one accepts the premise that America’s public schools are often broken and that many teachers are not up to the job, why have so many billionaires concluded that charter schools are the best way to fix the system? And what are the implications of having such a small group with so little expertise in the field of education exercising such influence in it? The type of website I have in mind would address such questions. Through investigation, analysis, links, tables, charts, and interviews, it would examine the nexus between Wall Street and charter schools, showing how it works and what drives it.

Education policy at the national level deserves similar watching. The nation’s K–12 policy has been strongly shaped by three foundations. One is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which, with assets of more than $40 billion, is by far the largest philanthropic institution in the world. Over the last fifteen years, it has given billions to promote standardized testing, merit pay for teachers, charter schools, the Common Core, and other elements of the education reform movement. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has concentrated on training superintendents and administrators who subscribe to the principles of that movement and seek to carry them out on the ground. And the Walton Family Foundation (endowed with Walmart money) has since 2000 given more than $1 billion to charter schools as well as to organizations like Teach for America and Families for Excellent Schools, an aggressive advocacy group with close ties to Eva Moskowitz, the controversial head of Success Academy charter schools, whose board includes many Wall Street executives….

The policy implications of all this were nicely summed up in an interview I found on YouTube with Stanley Katz, a professor of public affairs at Princeton and a longtime student of nonprofits. These megafoundations, he said, “have been able to leverage their resources in such a way that their policies have been adopted by state boards of education, local boards of education, and the federal Department of Education.” The result is that “the K–12 policy of these megafoundations is pretty much the K–12 policy of the United States of America.” It’s an illustration, Katz said, of how in today’s America private money can buy public policy.

The activities of these foundations have not gone unscrutinized by the press…. Given the power of that movement, however, far more attention is needed. A website examining the structure of money and influence in America could provide it. It would try to produce an ongoing record of the activities of the foundations and private donors trying to affect education policy—tracking the major participants, showing the links between them, assessing their influence and impact, and analyzing the evidence on the performance of both public and charter schools. The political and lobbying efforts of the teachers’ unions and their allies would be included as well, showing how much money and influence they are able to mobilize in elections and for what candidates. The site could also serve as a sounding board for people in the field, encouraging principals, teachers, parents, and grantees to send in comments about their dealings with these institutions. The most thoughtful could be edited and posted on the site, providing a bottom-up perspective that rarely gets aired.

Education is but one area of American life that is being transformed by Big Money. In a subsequent article, I will look at the growing power of philanthropy and suggest new ways in which journalists can cover it.

—This is the first of two articles. The second is How to Cover the One Percent, published in The New York Review of Books on 14 January 2016.