How the media covered Occupy Wall Street-and crony capitalism

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

With the recent first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, consider one beef from protesters that was legitimate: crony capitalism.

In general, Occupy Wall Street types could be described as a little too naïve about the downside of more government power, and too critical of people who exchange goods and services in markets.

But insofar as any protester was annoyed with politicians who like to subsidize specific businesses—corporate welfare in other words, and which is an accurate example of abused capitalism, hand me a protest sign and give me a tent.

When taxpayer dollars are given or “loaned” (wink, wink; nod, nod) to specific businesses, such taxpayer-financed subsidies are not cheap.

According to the OECD, in 2008, at least $48-billion was proposed for automotive companies alone. Annually, global taxpayer subsidies to the energy industry clock in at over $100-billion. And in Canada, between 1994 and 2007, governments spent $202 billion on all types of subsidies to multiple corporations in all sorts of industries.

So here’s a useful question: Given corporate welfare is so costly, why do the media so rarely report on it?

To understand what I’m driving at, compare media coverage of the Occupy protests with how often the same outlets reported or commented on corporate welfare.

Using two media monitoring services for the year between Sept 17, 2011 (the first day of the protest in New York City’s Zuccotti Park) and September 16, 2012, I entered these search terms: Occupy Wall Street OR Occupy movement. I then compared the same media but with corporate welfare OR business subsidies.

Here are some results. The Toronto Star mentioned the Occupy protests the most (283 stories); corporate welfare showed up just 14 times in the Star’s pages in that one-year period (using either search term). The Globe and Mail had 212 articles on the Occupy movement but just seven stories on business subsidies. The National Post had 196 Occupy stories and 37 mentions of corporate welfare.

There might be various explanations for the disparity. The Occupy protests took place in New York and in many other cities. So plenty of coverage would be expected relative to a more faceless issue like business subsidies.

But what’s revealing is a second calculation: the ratio for how each media outlet covered Occupy protests relative to corporate welfare.

Using the figures just noted, for every 30 mentions of the Occupy movement, the Globe and Mail had just one mention of corporate welfare. The Toronto Star ratio was 20 Occupy stories for every one about business subsidies. The National Post covered corporate welfare the most relative to the Occupy movement: five Occupy stories for every one about corporate welfare.

I also looked at 22 regional newspapers for the same period. In total, they mentioned the Occupy movement in 2,458 stories. The topic of business subsidies scored 192 stories, or a 13-to-1 ratio.

CTV News and Current Affairs reported on the Occupy protests 91 times and had just one mention of corporate welfare in an entire year. (Global TV and Sun TV were unavailable in the media search engine I used.) The one news web connected to a TV network available for measurement, News, mentioned the Occupy movement 160 times. There was no mention of business subsidies or corporate welfare.

In the United States, Occupy Wall Street and its sister protests in other cities received much coverage from everyone. But to use ideological language for a moment, the conservative and supposedly pro-business Wall Street Journal showed 1,398 stories on Occupy and 101 stories about corporate welfare in the one-year period. That’s a 14-to-one ratio. The only tighter ratio was at the Washington Post. The Post had roughly 10 Occupy mentions (1,151 hits) for every mention of corporate welfare issues (112).

In contrast, the American equivalent of our CBC, National Public Radio, discussed the Occupy protests 260 times. But in a full year of chatting, NPR never once mentioned corporate welfare or business subsidies.

The trend appears to be this: Media outlets usually considered more liberal or left-wing or even anti-business—the CBC, Toronto Star, ABC News, MSNBC (their talk-shows at least), the New York Times, and National Public Radio—don’t often cover corporate welfare.

Instead, it has been ostensible pro-business and “right wing” media outlets such as the National Post, Wall Street Journal and Fox News that more often report or comment on corporate welfare.

Ideological tags have their limitations. They also tend to miss critical exceptions. For example, one Toronto Star columnist recently lavished praise on my recent report on business subsidies.

Here is a useful conclusion drawn from the media numbers: If reporters and editors want to investigate actual examples of crony capitalism/corporate welfare, then handouts and loans to politically-connected businesses offer a huge and under-reported target.

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