Manufactured quotes

News organizations fail to disclose “regular Joe” businessmen's lobbying ties

Two weeks ago The New York Times wheeled out that old chestnut of Great Recession-era economic reporting: Companies can’t find workers, despite high unemployment.

This one was mercifully buried inside Business Day, but it got 1,200 words all the same, including this top:

After the latest, disappointing unemployment figures, policy makers and economists continue to debate how American companies might create more jobs. But business owners and recruiters say thousands of jobs around the country are sitting vacant, particularly at small and midsize companies.

“Companies all over are having a difficult time recruiting the kind of people they’re looking for,” said Robert Funk, chairman and chief executive of Express Employment Professionals, a national staffing firm based in Oklahoma City that helped some 335,000 people land jobs last year. “We currently have 18,000 open job orders we can’t fill.”

Well, I’m looking for a Mary Poppins type to take care of my twins for $7.25 an hour, but can’t seem to find one. Where are all those stern-but-cheerful nannies with charming accents willing to work for a song?

These businesspeople are supposed know how markets work: If you want to buy something, but nobody wants to sell it to you, raise your bid. In other words, if you can’t find someone qualified to work for $15 an hour, maybe you need to pay $20 and/or train somebody yourself.

But what really sends the BS meter into the red zone is when you learn that the anecdotes are populated with business people with ties to lobbying groups that news organizations, for whatever reason, fail to disclose.

Take one of the Times’s main anecdotes, Drew Greenblatt, who owns a small manufacturing firm in Baltimore called Marlin Steel Wire and who gets his picture in the Times. This was his third NYT hit in three months. Here are Mr. Greenblatt’s other press hits in June: The NBC Nightly News, PBS Newshour (twice), NPR’s Morning Edition, The Hamilton Spectator. So far this year he’s also been on CNN Newsroom and Fox Business (four times), and in the Financial Times, Reuters, and the Associated Press, plus a number of smaller publications. Two years ago, Greenblatt and his company were the focus of a flattering 2,300 word Atlantic profile, and he scored a couple of WaPo profiles in 2001 and 2007. This guy is like the Greg Packer of small manufacturers.

Last month, Tim Geithner popped in for a visit. All this ain’t bad for a company with revenues of $5 million. You’d think it was IBM.

Undisclosed in any of these stories is the fact that Greenblatt is an executive-committee member of the board of the National Association of Manufacturers, the powerful DC trade lobby. NAM not only pushes Congress for anti-labor policies (like banning picketing), it lobbies for government-funded workforce training programs (“to be led by the business community,” naturally).

Back in October NAM partnered with Deloitte to put out a report that used sketchy methodology to claim that 600,000 jobs are going unfilled because manufacturers “can’t find people with the right skills.”

Back in 2009, Greenblatt was upset that Congress and President Bush had upped the minimum wage from $5.85 an hour, telling Investors Business Daily that “The minimum wage (hike) is another anti-small-business and another anti-job plan.”

Last September, Greenblatt testified to Congress for NAM in favor of so-called free-trade agreements in Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. Earlier in the year he testified to Congress for NAM in favor of sharply reducing corporate taxes, increasing foreign labor visas, and drilling for oil and against new labor regulations. He (NAM) was against new labor rules, consumer-safety rules, and environmental regulations.

And he’s been to the White House several times. His prominent NAM post, not to mention all this political activity, means Greenblatt’s NAM connections should be disclosed to readers. Yet none of the many news outlets that have quoted him has done so.

A couple of weeks ago, blogger Steve M. at Balloon Juice and No More Mister Nice Blog caught NPR and NBC talking to the same small businessman, Joe Olivo, about how Obama’s health care law is keeping him from hiring for his printing business. Turns out Olivo’s quite the active member of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the big right-wing, pro-corporate lobbying group that was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case against Obamacare, which is called National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. His NFIB connections, needless to say, weren’t disclosed by either broadcast. And Steve M. caught NPR going back to the well a week later, with yet another anti-Obamacare Olivo interview with no disclosure of his lobbying ties.

This is hardly the first time this has happened with Olivo.

Two weeks ago, Olivo went to the friendly turf of Fox Business and appeared on “Stossel” alongside an NFIB lawyer, coincidentally enough (NPR also talked to the NFIB in one of the Olivo pieces). Olivo’s NFIB connection wasn’t mentioned. In the last year he’s been quoted in the AP (four times), Fox News, the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Financial Times happened upon him last September to provide an anti-Obama quote after the president’s jobs speech.

Olivo was also on NPR’s “All Things Considered” back in 2009 talking anti-Obamacare. Also on the segment: An NFIB lobbyist. And he has testified before the New Jersey Assembly opposing an increase in the state minimum wage and before Congress against the health-care reform plan.

Is it really so hard to find small manufacturing businesses to talk to? No. It’s a bad brew of deadline pressures mixed with “balance” pressures.

Here’s how you should assume this works, because it’s how it very often does: A journalist is on deadline on a story and needs an anecdote to make it feel “real” with some color—preferably someone who will add balance and/or support the journalist’s thesis. A speed-dialed call is made to industry flacks to supply a quotable small-business person…and, voilĂ !

That’s the quick-and-easy way, which is how readers get political activists presented misleadingly as random businessmen.

The other way would be to have an economics reporter with a well-developed list of manufacturers and small business people who might be able to offer some non-scripted views.

It’s called sourcing. Barring that, there’s the Internets.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,