The Providence Journal: Rhode Island’s Specialest Interest

Newsboy croppedThe Journal is Very Concerned that business isn’t getting treated well. So they tell us in a Feb. 13 editorial “Businesses on the menu“:

For years, Rhode Island businesses have been content to be on the menu, sliced and diced, then served hot for the benefit of special interests that advance themselves by tapping into the power of the state.

Much of the editorial goes on in this vein, a great wailing and gnashing of teeth that our poor, poor businesses aren’t being treated well enough by our politicians, and suggesting that they get more involved. Also, it’s possible to read The Journal‘s well-established love for slashing social safety nets in there.

It might surprise The Journal that of the 411 registered entities that lobby at the Statehouse, a great many of them are, in fact, businesses. From national businesses like Major League Baseball to 3M to General Motors, to the more local business interests like the state’s dentists, subcontractors, and even our daily newspapers (paying a handsome $30,000 a year for their lobbyist), businesses and their advocates make up a healthy proportion of the voices at the Statehouse.

In fact, few (if any) groups come close to the $100,000 annual price tag of the lobbyist for the Providence Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, perhaps most effective is the over $70,000 paid by Advance America, the notorious payday loan company that has routinely stymied efforts to reduce its beloved loophole in Rhode Island’s usury laws; in fact, last year, it very nearly got the Assembly to remove any limit at all. Another $30,000 is paid out by Rover.com, a site which bills itself as a place to connect with local dog walkers. Since small businesses especially are singled out by The Journal, what is smaller business than dog walkers?

If The Journal feels like businesses don’t have a voice at the Statehouse, perhaps it would make sense to stop paying so much to remain silent. But, of course, I don’t run any businesses, so what would I know.

* * *

The editorial writer(s?) twice derides those who might criticize this state of affairs as “special interests” – once above, and once in this wonderfully opaque fashion:

Yet there are special interests that, for political reasons, make it harder for businesses to create the jobs that Rhode Island desperately needs.

You see, businesses want to create jobs. That’s what business is about, obviously. Not profits or making money or any of that sort of thing. Jobs. Business owners are just kind-hearted charities, that really want to pay unemployed people to work, rather than maximize productivity and output while minimizing administration and overhead. Stopping businesses from their charity work are shadowy, nefarious, and unnamed special interests, who are doing it for… reasons… Political reasons!

It’s necessary to stop here and talk about special interests. What are special interests? Well, Merriam-Webster has a decent definition:

a person or group seeking to influence legislative or government policy to further often narrowly defined interests; especially : lobby

Hmm… lobbying is done on behalf of special interests, and businesses pay lobbyists… is business one of the special interests stopping business from creating jobs?

You see, the phrase “special interests” is so vague and ill-defined that it only really exists as a bipartisan rhetorical device for hack writing: “opponents of what I want are special interests, therefore I am for the public interest.” This last part almost always goes unsaid, and it’s quite obvious why: no one can really say what is in the public interest.

It is in the public’s interest that things are good. But what things are good, and how to make them good, and how to define “good” are entirely what politics is about. Is it low unemployment? Is it full employment? Is it a high median wage? Is it high home values? Is it affordable housing costs? Is it strong tax revenue? Is it small budgets? Is it a tiny welfare state? Is it mass development, or is it tight zoning?

This is why we have politics, and The Journal is lying to you to suggest businesses are not a part of this discussion. Indeed, they have a louder voice than anyone: they have The Journal shouting for them (The Journal itself says its average reader has an income of $84,000 and is 52 – for a near-comparison, the median Rhode Islander has a household income of $58,000 and is about 40). Whole television shows are dedicated to talking to business. There exist no such organizations with the reach and prestige dedicated to workers, to welfare recipients, to the poor and homeless.

It is when thinking of the truly voiceless that we should pause. When most people do not have the time or money to participate in politics, when a minority of people even vote (among those who can), any interest in politics is special. Is is deceptive and irrational to suggest that your political opponent is special but you are not.

Similarly, The Journal (like many news organizations) pretends in the editorial that it is entirely apolitical. It is the opponents of its views who are political, who do things for political reasons. Those reasons have to remain unnamed, possibly because precious column space is running out. Or possibly because those reasons could range from demands that businesses pay their workers a living wage, provide benefits, pay taxes, follow rules so they can’t abuse their employees or the environment, be allowed to unionize… well, these are just political things that are getting in the way of the completely apolitical charitable mission of businesses to provide jobs. Mentioning such reasons would be political, and The Journal has no politics.

Thus, when it issues endorsements of politicians that it wants elected this is common sense, not politics. Its arguments in favor of alterations of the constitutional arrangement, or electoral conduct, or specific legislation are, obviously, entirely those of a disinterested observer, not of an organization who at all has a political reason for anything.

One wonders why it even bothers to have an editorial page if it doesn’t engage in politics.

* * *

The Journal, in its mission statement, says it “works with… a fierce interest in Rhode Island’s welfare” but it never bothers to define what Rhode Island’s welfare is. Mission statements are often quite vague. In The Journal‘s case, the mission statement is also quite difficult to find. Searching for it, I was only able to find executive editor Alan Rosenberg’s articulation of it. And that was through Google; searching the website itself revealed nothing. Thus, I couldn’t find any further vision or values to tell me how Rhode Island’s top news source views a key part of its mission.

The old koan is that the job of a newspaper is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” — lost is the part from the original where it runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia and controls the legislature. The Journal‘s editorial board would likely salivate over such power. Our benevolent, apolitical overlords. How simple politics would be if we could get all these pesky politicians and special interests out of the way.

The Journal‘s editorial board needs to own up to what it really wants: it wants a conservative government with little-to-no welfare state, low taxes, no unions, and a lot less complaining from those who are poor, and/or non-white, and/or women.

It might not be in the public’s interest, but it sure would be in theirs.

4 comments

  1. Great piece, I’m surprised no mention of how hard The Journal works to make sure every single state or local government action must be advertised in their paper. Despite other mediums now reaching far more people.

  2. Very well said, Sam.

  3. This would be more effective if you shortened it up a little. otherwise a great premise.

    I’d certainly concur with your conclusion, my former employer is nothing, if not opaque when covering for the national business interests advanced by the Chamber, while at the same time doing nothing for small business owners who are in much the same boat as employees of large employers.

  4. Jan O'Kelley · · Reply

    Perhaps you need to search somewhere in Texas where The Journal’s owners are.

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