April 09, 2012

Regulatory Opponents Take Note: The Media May Be Catching On!

One of the many ways that the slow and agonizing contraction of the newspaper industry is felt is in the depth of coverage that papers provide their readers. It’s a matter of simple math, really. As newsrooms shrink, reporters are stretched ever thinner. So a newspaper that 15 years ago had separate reporters covering elementary and secondary education is now likely to have just one covering both. Similarly, newspapers have fewer reporters dedicated to the environmental beat, let alone beats covering regulatory issues — topics at the heart of the Center for Progressive Reform’s work. The result is that many reporters don’t have time to take on stories they might once have covered, and if they do, they sometimes have a steeper learning curve and too little time to really dig in. That’s a recipe for simplistic coverage, which is just a nice way of saying bad coverage.

But I’d like to highlight two notable exceptions. Last week, two of the nation’s leading newspapers offered stories about regulation that went far beyond the norm.

Think for a moment about the storyline on regulation for the past couple years. Republicans in Congress, intent on devising some rationale for the nation’s economic woes that does not point back to the failings of their own deregulatory policies, have resaddled their longstanding anti-regulatory campaign with a new and timely argument: that a supposed flood of regulations from the Obama Administration is choking off the recovery.

It’s a hard case to make if you stick to the facts. The truth is that regulations produce vastly more economic benefit than they cost – that is the purpose of the cost-benefit analysis wringer through which major regulations are fed before they are finalized. With very rare exception, if a regulation’s dollar benefits don’t exceed its dollar costs, it gets rewritten or killed. (And keep in mind that that the big failing of the cost-benefit process is that it overestimates costs and underestimates benefits.)

That said, work time saved because an employee didn’t get sick from breathing particulate matter spewed from a coal-fired power plant’s smokestack isn’t a benefit that moves polluting industries. From their narrow point of view, only the cost of cleaning up the pollution registers. So they oppose such regulations, and their champions in Congress, generally Republicans, leap to their defense. Never mind the accumulated benefits of thousands of work hours not lost by employees breathing cleaner air.

So these days, you hear opponents of regulation talk only about the costs of regulation, not about the benefits.

If most newspapers had reporters working the regulatory beat full time, that kind of thin reasoning would likely be exposed quickly and abandoned. But these days, most media coverage of regulation takes such assertions and examines them chiefly through the lens of politics, not substance. A substantive examination would reveal that the argument is dishonest. But a political examination needn’t examine the merits of the argument. It’s enough simply to repeat the assertion, cite some slanted report from an industry-funded advocacy group, and tack on a perfunctory denial from an Administration spokesperson or a progressive organization.

But on Tuesday, April 3, the New York Times and the Washington Post both ran stories that did something we don’t see often enough: They examined the facts! The Times ran a lengthy front page piece exploring conflicts between the Food & Drug Administration and the White House, a tale that involves political appointees in the Obama White House interfering with regulators at the FDA for no better reason than because they fear political fallout if FDA did its job. The story touched on a number of flashpoints, including regulating sun screen that doesn’t actually protect against the sun’s cancer-causing rays, banning an asthma inhaler that still relied on ozone-layer depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), requiring chain movie theaters to post calorie counts for their saturated fat-laden popcorn, and perhaps most prominently, reversing an FDA decision to allow over-the-counter access to the emergency contraceptive, Plan B, to teenagers. (It is already sold over-the-counter to customers 17 years or older, but a prescription requirement for use by 16-year-olds and younger means it cannot be stocked openly, even though it meets the safety and efficacy standards for over-the-counter drugs.)

In each of these instances, White House or Department appointees interceded in FDA’s deliberations. In the theater popcorn case, for example, a White House staffer is said to have acted out of fear that the Administration would be mocked on Fox News. No doubt, fair and balanced Fox would have done just that. But then again, clearance with Rupert Murdoch’s minions is not typically one of the boxes on the regulatory promulgation flow chart!

The take-away from the article is that despite assertions by Republicans that the Administration has unleashed a torrent of regulations, the reality is that the White House is achingly timid about regulating, fearing political backlash. That’s another way of saying that the Republicans’ fiction-driven assault is having some substantive effect.

The Post’s story, a column by the professionally cynical Dana Milbank, focuses in on a single regulatory flashpoint: a proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to allow chicken slaughterhouses to inspect their own chickens for safety, rather than relying on federal inspectors. (The proposal all but begs the “fox guarding the henhouse” reference, and sure enough, Milbank quotes one!) In addition to putting inspection in the hands of employees of the company, the article also makes clear that slaughterhouses would take advantage of the change to speed up the production line, giving inspectors a single minute to check as many as 175 birds.

In telling the story, Milbank includes a point  that rarely turns up in news coverage, the connection between budget-cutting and enforcement of regulations. He quotes John Gage, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees saying that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told him that USDA’s reason for letting the slaughterhouses inspect themselves is that cuts to the USDA budget have left the agency without funds to do the inspecting themselves. Says Gage of Vilsack: “He said it’s budget cuts — we have to do it.” And it's not just USDA that Gage thinks will find itself cutting back its enforcement. “We’re going to see it in the Bureau of Prisons, in Social Security, in the VA — across the board,” he said.

Another virtue of Milbank’s piece is that it actually examines the Republican assertion that the Administration is issuing a flood of new regulations, and describes it as “chicken droppings.” Extending his metaphor, Milbank writes:

In truth, business doesn’t have to worry much about its place in the pecking order. Even if the Obama administration were inclined to bring down capitalism with an orgy of over-regulation, there isn’t enough money in the budget to enforce the rules on the books. That’s what the chicken fight is about: Spending cuts, such as those Congress and President Obama agreed to last summer, are a form of de facto deregulation.

It’s probably too much to hope that the Times and Post stories will trigger smarter coverage of regulation media-wide. But anti-regulatory advocates at least have reason to worry that somebody might be catching on!

Matthew Freeman, Media Consultant, Center for Progressive Reform. Bio.

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