Astroturfing The New York Times and Wall Street Journal

A New Jersey businessman hits the media circuit again, with lobbying connections undisclosed

The New York Times writes about New Jersey voters raising the state’s minimum wage a buck to $8.25 an hour and how “some business owners” had already prepared for the fallout from the 14 percent increase.

“Some employers” would more accurately be “one employer,” since the Times only gives us one such example of this happening.

And it turns out that anecdote, a New Jersey businessman named Joe Olivo, is seriously problematic.

If you read your Wall Street Journal two days before the Times piece, you might have noticed Olivo in a story about the New Jersey minimum wage

“I have good years and I have bad years,” said Joe Olivo, who owns a printing plant in Moorestown, N.J. “I can’t afford to give wage increases every year.”

If you were watching NBC News in late June of last year, you’d have seen Olivo interviewed about how Obamacare was supposedly keeping him from hiring. If you listened to NPR the next morning, you’d have heard Olivo talk about the same thing. And then if you listened to a NPR a week later, you’d have heard Olivo talking yet again about how Obamacare would prevent him from hiring and force him to lay off workers.

Also that June, Olivo made an appearance on John Stossel’s Fox Business show. In the previous year, he made it into the Associated Press four times, appeared on Fox News, got hits in the Philadelphia Inquire and Financial Times. In 2009, he went on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to trash Obamacare.

Undisclosed in any of these appearances: That Olivo is no regular Joe business owner, as the Times and WSJ would still have us believe after all these press clips. Olivo a very active member of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a Koch-funded right-wing lobbying organization that fights minimum-wage increases and Obamacare among other things.

I wrote about Olivo and another astroturf media favorite in July of last year. About three seconds of Internet sleuthing turned up that Olivo was “vice chairman of the NFIB’s New Jersey Leadership Council, starred in promo videos for it, and worked with lobbyists to influence state legislatures and Congress.

As I said then:

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 !

And in a subsequent post:

It’s true that the line can be fuzzy, but that’s why folks like Olivo are so valuable to groups like NFIB and why it’s worth leaning toward abstention from rent-a-quotes and at least disclosing their ties if those deadline and/or balance pressures are too much.

Let’s face it: Nobody trusts what some paid-to-say-it lobbyist thinks. The press knows it and the lobbyists for sure know it, which is why they seek to cloak their messages in the authenticity of the man on the street. The operating assumption should be that a lobby will only sends reporters to quote someone who’ll reliably say most of the same things it would say. You wouldn’t quote a spokesperson from an activist group without noting their affiliation. These lobbyist-supplied sources are proxy spokespeople.

Don’t become a victim of anecdote laundering.

Further reading:

Manufactured quotes. News organizations fail to disclose “regular Joe” businessmen’s lobbying ties

More on NPR and manufactured quotes. Why lobbyist-provided rent-a-quotes subvert the news

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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: , , , ,