Businesses, Profits Often Vilified by Media, Report Says

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

( - Once it became evident that lightning strikes were responsible for a mining tragedy in West Virginia - a tragedy initially blamed on International Coal Group's (ICG) Chief Executive Officer Wilbur Ross - ABC News reversed its reporting.

However, ABC's updated account of the incident did not express any contrition toward Ross. In fact, he was "practically accused of murder" in a January 2006 broadcast, according to a special report on media coverage of business figures released by the Business & Media Institute (BMI) on Tuesday.

The report, "Bad Company III: For American Businessmen in the News, the Defense Never Rests," can be viewed here.

Shortly after the mining collapse claimed 12 lives, ABC aired a story. Correspondent Elizabeth Vargas opened by claiming "the billionaire chairman was well aware of the mine's extensive safety problems."

Yet Ross could "barely get a word in edgewise" as he was "pummeled with stinging questions" by ABC, Amy Menefee, BMI's managing editor, told Cybercast News Service. (BMI is a division under the Media Research Center, the parent company of Cybercast News Service.)

"The poor guy was really terrible on camera," Menefee said in reference to Ross. "But you can understand why he was stunned by the treatment. ABC more than implied he was responsible for the deaths. ABC portrayed Ross as a callous, uncaring detached person and kept calling him a billionaire to distance him from his workers."

ABC's treatment of Ross stands on top of BMI's "Worst Five Attacks on Businessmen." The new report is the third in a series that examines how extensive anti-business attitudes are throughout the media.

Bad Company I scrutinized how business professionals were portrayed on popular televisions shows like "Law and Order" while Bad Company II examined how Oscar- nominated films targeted business. The latest report is the by-product of a year-long study of evening newscasts on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox News.

A key finding shows businessmen often went missing, even from reports that directly involved company or business operations and concerns. On the three networks, businessmen were included in just 37 percent of the business stories, according to the report.

"There is a basic tenet of journalism," said BMI Director Dan Gainor. "The media should let the businessperson speak. We recommend that the broadcast networks and others avoid setting up businessmen with negative coverage and then just allowing them to have one line to respond."

The stereotypes of prominent business figures that often appear on television news are largely the result of the "natural antipathy" the dominant media have toward the free enterprise system, said Gainor.

To protect against this biased mindset, BMI recommends that the major media refrain from reflexively viewing money as evil in and of itself, he said.

"Businesses provide jobs and philanthropic support to communities," reads the report. "In order to do that they must make profits, pay their executives, and sometimes raise their prices. Keep it all in perspective and avoid knee-jerk reactions to large sums of money. If in doubt, talk to an economist about the role of money in a particular situation."

BMI also encourages members of the press to maintain a sense of perspective on the issue of CEO compensation. Although CEO pay remains an "easy target" in the eyes of media officials, future reports would be more balanced if they quoted economists who understood the free market system, the report states.

In drawing comparisons between CEO pay and private workers, many news media, such as the Associated Press, often reference "inflated numbers" made available through the AFL-CIO, BMI said.

"It's a very class warfare, anti-free market comparison," said Menefee. "We found a number far lower than the union number."

But, even so, the comparison is still a "red herring," according to Walter Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University, who is cited in the report.

"If one company has an effective CEO, it is not the only company that would like to have him on the payroll," said Williams. "In order to keep him, the company must pay him enough so that he can't be lured elsewhere."

Unfortunately, the concept of turning a profit is widely misunderstood, and there is a certain assumption on the part of many in the press that they are unearned, said Williams. "Just as workers will not provide their services without wages, entrepreneurs will not provide theirs without profit," he said.

This jaundiced view toward entrepreneurs extends to the youngest supporters of free markets, according to the report. A "CBS Evening News" profile of a 17-year-old grocery store owner who saved a local market in Truman, Minn., was not unqualified in its praise, said Menefee.

"He's a great kid, but he's a businessman, too," reporter Steve Hartman said. "He makes his grandma pay full prices for groceries."

The importance of turning a profit and the benefits attached to keeping the market in operation was apparently lost in the report, Menefee said.

In fact, the enormous contributions businessmen make in terms of philanthropy and economic vitality are overlooked more often than not, the BMI report stated.

Businessmen show up as criminals one-and-a-half times more than they do as philanthropists, according to the findings. CNN, for instance, had a 7-to-1 criminal-to-philanthropist ratio, BMI researchers found.

"The media always want to focus on the exception," Gainor said. "But they don't focus on the exceptional, and on those businessmen who give billions to charity and then ignore the fact that businesses and the profits of business allow people to buy everything else that keep our economy going and allow people to put a roof over their head."

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