I was sitting down to write a more extended post about the press’s treatment of the CPSIA controversy when I found that Prof. Mark Obbie, whose LawBeat blog watches the world of legal journalism closely, had already said much of what I wanted to say (while generously citing my work along the way). So instead I will refer you to him, and just add a few further observations.
As do I, Prof. Obbie finds noteworthy the “weird blind spot” of the New York Times, which as I noted a week and a half ago (citing commenter Amy Hoffman)
still has not covered this debacle — a crucial point, since it’s hard to get an issue truly onto the news agenda at other highly ranked media outlets if the Times refuses to notice it…. There’s something truly crazy here, given that the Times plays a conscious role as a key trend-spotter in both the design world and the apparel trade, as well as the world of law and governance.
As of Monday, three days after the CPSC’s stay and weeks after the outcry over the law had surfaced in places like the Washington Post (Dec. 21), Wall Street Journal (Jan. 8), Detroit News (Jan. 10) and Los Angeles Times (Jan. 2), the only notice of the controversy to be found in the Times’s index was what Obbie rightly labels “this pathetic gesture, cribbed from the Bloomberg wire, published on Saturday’s page B2 in the Times”. The tiny 45-word piece commits the typical beginner’s mistake (which, I hasten to add, I committed myself on Jan. 2 before I’d begun to look at the issue carefully) of mentioning only toys as a target of the law, thus missing most of its actual sweep.
The Times was hardly alone in being stone deaf. If any serious reporting on the law went out over the national Associated Press or Reuters wires, or on any of the three old-line TV networks or PBS over the past two months, I missed it, though of course I am happy to be corrected if a reader calls it to my attention.
It will be noted that good coverage of CPSIA frequently emanated from “Style”, local-beat, or feature/human interest reporters, and much less often from Washington or government bureaus. I observed in my second Forbes piece that in some quarters of the elite press
it’s usual to turn for guidance on consumer issues to groups like Public Citizen or U.S. PIRG — the very groups who gave us CPSIA in the first place.
I think Washington-based reporting is particularly prone to a version of this problem. The reporter and editor will ordinarily want to be fair and not just run with whatever line Public Citizen or PIRG are putting out, so they know they need to track down the other side of the story. The problem of course is buried in that phrase “the other”. The temptation (which, of course, the consumer group will often encourage) is to designate as “the other” side some big industry or household-name business with a lobbyist, trade association, or P.R. firm conveniently present on the Washington scene to be dialed up — in this case, someone like the Big Two giant toymakers known for their mass-merchandised Chinese imports, or maybe a retailer like Wal-Mart or Target.
We now realize in retrospect something that may not have been quite as apparent earlier when CPSIA was being pushed to approval amid near-unanimous cheering in the press: that the interests of these mass merchandisers may diverge quite drastically from that of small toy, garment, or school-supply makers or retailers not present at the Washington negotiation table, and that laws mass producers can “live with” and are willing to sign off on are not necessarily compatible with the survival of the small makers and sellers. So the story told from inside Washington will be quite different from the story told later outside. That’s my theory, anyway, to account for the selective deafness of some sectors of the national press, and perhaps in particular some editors and publishers who self-consciously concern themselves with questions of high national policy.