The Science of Bidness

Four weeks ago I wrote:

For the past month I’ve had a job writing for two newsletters at a company based in Washington, D.C., one newsletter for union leaders and one for management. I’m the third person on two three-person staffs. The other writers/editors write for one newsletter or the other. I switch back and forth. When I write for unions I almost enjoy it. There’s not much original reporting involved, not much of a challenge, mostly re-working other people’s stuff. And I’m eternally exhausted from five or six hours of commuting every day. But at least the material interests me.

When I write management stuff I can’t relate to it. I see no value in it. I’m opposed to what most of it is trying to do, and most of it is worthless even for what it’s intended to be. The state of business science is pathetic. We report on “studies” and “reports” with no known methodology or one obviously unscientific, “studies” produced with the open and obvious intention of promoting the product sold by the software producer or temp agency or what-have-you that goes by the name of “market research and solution provider.” My editor actually has a policy of “don’t ask and don’t tell” with some of these surveys. We don’t ask where they got their conclusions, so that we can later claim we were out of the loop. We weren’t really quite aware we were printing baseless assertions.

Which brings me to the topic of two articles I’ve read in other publications recently on living wages. One was in the July issue of HR magazine, the other in a September issue of Business Week. The great news is that Business Week is admitting that raising minimum wages does not significantly cut jobs. The sad news is that Business Week is pretending that until recently there was a consensus that minimum wages did cause job losses, whereas in recent years the consensus has changed.

This is demonstrably a crock. Economists have known and written for decades that raising minimum wages (especially when they are as low as they are now) does not cause job losses. It introduces decency into the job market while also reducing the need for foodstamps and other subsidies, reducing turnover, and increasing productivity. And where else do we ever hear about managers fretting over cutting jobs, except in the dishonest “studies” of conservative blink tanks maintaining decade after decade that paying above the poverty line is damaging to poor workers? According to HR magazine, “Experts on both sides believe that it’s too soon to tell if living wage laws really work.” The article does not define what it means by “really work” or name the experts, though some people are quoted elsewhere in the article who would probably not agree with this. Living wage laws are meant to give people better lives. They do.

HR magazine claims there’s not enough evidence on living wages yet. But there is evidence on minimum wages long predating the name “living wage.” I don’t know how much evidence there is on living wage laws encouraging nearby businesses not covered by the laws to raise their wages as well, but surely there are few backers of living wage laws whose ultimate goal is to let higher wages for city contractors influence other employers. I, for one, support living wage requirements wherever we can get them – ideally in federal and state law covering all industries and – for once – linked to increase with the cost of living. My editor said to me, “I just can’t get excited about these living wages. It’s just a few workers for a few cities.” I replied, “Nobody interested in a living wage doesn’t want it bigger.” He said, enlighteningly, “Lots of people do. Management.” He paused and waited for my nonmanagement mind to grasp this possibly difficult thought.

About a week ago I wrote this E-mail to my managing editor after some problems with the editor of the management newsletter:

I wonder if you could offer me any advice. I’m having a little trouble with having to write things in [a newsletter] that I don’t believe and to give advice in the Working With People section that I consider unconscionable.

“I don’t, for example, believe that huge corporations are seriously threatened by small expenses. Or, to take an example from WWP, I don’t want to advise employers to make policies as vague as possible or to include escape clauses so that any action can be disciplined in any manner preferred, depending on the employer’s mood that day (B–‘s words). I’m not even convinced that managers want to read that sort of advice, that they have any easier time than I do living with being intentionally unfair.

“If an employer negotiates a contract that limits its actions and then violates it, it should be free to try to negotiate alterations in the contract to be applied non-retroactively. But to suggest that it would have been better for the company to be able to get around the contract is to destroy the idea of a contract and to eliminate any job security.

“The readers are free to laugh at the company in the story for having failed to take the simple steps required by the contract. They are free to despise the company’s attempt to remove job security in an apparent fit brought on by a wounded ego. We should encourage these reactions and expect them of the decent people who subscribe, rather than insulting them with the assumption that all they could possibly bring themselves to care about is tyrannical power or financial gain.

“Wouldn’t it work at least as well if we gave pointers on how to be a good HR manager in every sense of the term, rather than pointers on how to eliminate the most employee rights except in those cases where profits require them? Hasn’t this proved not only a soul-soothing but a profitable strategy for various publications? Business Week is getting a lot of good press for writing honestly about living wages and corporations meddling in politics. Populist activists are not the subscribers to Business Week. Just an idea. Thanks for any help,

My editor on the management newsletter had asked me to write some advice to human resource managers, and I had refused. (The first advice I would give them would be that humans are not a resource.)

The trouble may have been aggravated by the fact that the day before this incident I heard the single best and most inspiring speech I ever have: Ralph Nader’s at the University of Virginia on Sept. 17, 2000. Nader turned the agreed upon assumptions of all sides in American debates on their head. And he told the audience of college students that if they wanted a cause that would allow them to change the world drastically, they could become activists or scholars for the Green Party. I can imagine nothing better, but who would pay me for such a thing? What are those of us who are married supposed to live on while we devote our lives to useful and interesting but voluntary scholarship?

I was also reading an astonishingly good book called “The Working Class Majority” by Michael Zweig. I really wish someone would come up with a way that people who are inspired by such works could earn a living continuing their causes.

My managing editor’s usual reply to anything ambitious is that it can’t be done. I wrote an article on unions fighting sprawl, and he told me most unions would never do it, but – by kettle logic – if they did, they would give it a bad name because people don’t like unions. I write for a union publication in order to promote unions, and that cannot be done at the same time as believing there’s something shameful about unions. But I convinced my managing editor, or he otherwise decided, to let the story run. He then proposed to some higher ups creating a whole new publication on smart growth. I found this extremely encouraging for him, my career, and our country.

But, before J— had read the above e-mail, my editor had gone in and complained to him about me, and when he talked to me about it his fatalism was in full force. We shouldn’t advise HR managers, he said, to do things they don’t already want to do. We should be even-handed and objective. We’re not cut-throat or bleeding heart, but moderate (his words).

What he asked me to write was much more palatable than what the other guy had, but it shunned morality, decency, altruism, or concern for society. Any admirable actions I advised had to be motivated by enlightened self-interest. You don’t want to frivolously fire a good employee, but only because unemployment is low, for example.

But middle-of-the-roadism is just a position like any other, determined merely by where the road happens to be. Setting up two enemies, management and labor, and playing a little to the vilest possible interests of each with the assumption that current laws and practices are pretty near perfect, is not any more undeniably good than any other attitude.

We have to be objective, he said. But a story is determined not only by how things are said, but also by what things are included in the first place. And there is no identifiably “objective” selection procedure. We can’t eliminate judgment even by servility and plagiarism. Using the government’s way of thinking about an issue is a choice, and often a bad choice at that.

I told him that I didn’t think in the way the other two management newsletter people did. I don’t believe 5 percent unemployment is the same as zero because a lot of people only pretend they want a job. I don’t believe the economy is doing well. I don’t believe arbitrators of labor disputes usually side with unions.

He told me this trouble of mine was an old story, that he had had “liberals” in my position before who BELIEVED things. Everyone in the company had such liberal goals or they wouldn’t be there, he said, absurdly. Maybe he had become “jaded,” he said, but I very much doubt he was ever much like I am.

I don’t understand the idea of giving advice without ethics. Ethics is not something I apply to life in select instances. If you are advising behavior of any sort, you are giving ethical advise. Your advise must be aimed at some goal, and that goal may or may not be admirable. In this case, the advice we write in the management newsletter is aimed at maximizing power and profits for HR departments. When that goal is followed at the expense of other things, such as the rights and compensation of people doing actual work, it is despicable.

There are companies in Charlottesville, Va., that have adopted living -wage policies without being forced to, and – in some cases – without even considering the savings they may obtain from reduced turnover and increased productivity. They have acted out of some other concern.

I don’t think all small business managers view their own interests as entirely disconnected from the interests of society as a whole. If we want to write to them fairly and honestly, why not combine the two publications I work on into one? Why could I write more freely for a newspaper than I can on the management newsletter?

Can I possibly do anyone any good by trying to ever-so-slightly improve the message being sent to HR people?

Today I went to work having written three articles, two of them for the union newsletter. The one for the management newsletter went over fine with the editor of that. The managing editor hasn’t seen it yet. It was about a topic I feel strongly about, but it was simply reporting, and I simply reported what people of various persuasions said when asked nonleading questions.

One of the articles for the union newsletter I showed to the managing editor, and it was NOT a hit. It was for a special feature page, and dealt with a labor dispute at Catholic University of America. One of my co-workers had suggested making the theme of it: “Catholic organizations that don’t practice what they preach.” Maybe if he had written it, it would have been acceptable.

I wrote it very carefully. I described Catholic statements and actions in support of workers’ rights. I gave both sides of the dispute at CUA. But the managing editor saw it as preaching morality to people trying their best to run a business. When I asked him what specifically was wrong, he started to answer and then rambled off into a speech about how it isn’t true that unions can do no wrong and companies should just be run by unions and that sort of thing. I told him he was objecting to beliefs I didn’t hold. It seems he has a very strong inclination now to find what he considers “unobjective” in my writing — meaning that if I don’t slant future pieces heavily against workers he will probably read them as simple-minded communism.

In the same conversation he asked me to be “objective” and he told me an opinion that he wanted me to find someone who would express. He wanted some Catholic official to say that Catholic ideals are all well and good, but that it’s difficult to always follow them and run a business efficiently. This would be “objective,” as he sees it, because it would disagree with what other people were quoted in the article as saying. But if we decide what the comment will be before we get it, how is it coming from an external “object”? And if it’s that predictable, why say it anyway?

This is a common problem in journalism. Some journalists ask interviewees if they agree with something, and then attribute the statement as a paraphrase to that person. I’m inclined to think it is more honest to select people to talk to based on anything other than what they are likely to say, and to ask them general, open-ended questions. If they all speak in strong agreement with one another, so be it. If exactly half of them express each of two opinions, so be it. You write what you get, instead of getting what you want to write.

But an editor searches for “objectivity” in a final product, and mine looks for a balance of opinions, based on his idea of where “the middle” should be. He wanted to know whether it might not be appropriate for Catholic institutions to pay low wages since priests take vows of poverty. He stressed how low some of these priests’ salaries are (ca. $25,000). My response was that no one had made that argument to me, the janitors complaining about their wages weren’t priests, and $25,000 isn’t poverty even in D.C., whereas the wages of a janitor earning $6.15 per hour with no benefits and being charged to park his car at work do amount to poverty. My editor picked a higher wage earned by most of the janitors ($8.18 per hour) and claimed it wasn’t poverty. (Of course, my article didn’t say that it was.)

When I repeatedly tried to bring him back to the topic of revising the article and what was wrong with it, my editor said it told the readers who was right and who was wrong. Where? Well, it didn’t do so EXPLICITLY, but he saw it suggested there, he said, after having read my e-mail (above) and heard about other things I’d written. I wasn’t being a reporter, but had a streak in me of being on a moral crusade, he said with grave concern.

He’s right about that. I may be the only person I know who wouldn’t be embarrassed to stand up and say he wants to follow the goal Upton Sinclair set for himself when he said, “My efforts are to find out what is righteousness in the world, to live it, and try to help others to live it.”

But righteous newspaper writing is done by honest and open and inclusive reporting that – like every other kind – has a point of view, but which avoids needless distortions and omissions through awareness of what the readers’ frames of reference are likely to be and faithfulness to the opinions expressed by the subjects of articles.

Here’s what I wrote for a resignation letter:

David Swanson

4 October 2000

Dear Jeff, Brian, Ray, Bob, Linda,

I quit. I’ll work two more weeks or more, whatever is most convenient for you.

Journalists talk a heck of a lot about something called objectivity. What do they mean by it? One meaning might be “what is produced by an external object without interference from a subject.” This would be opposed to subjectivity, meaning “that which is created from within a person without regard to external objects.” The trouble is that I’ve read too much Heidegger and Rorty to take such ideas seriously. Nothing is ever one of those things or the other. Nor does it make sense to treat them as imaginary extremes and measure works of journalism on a scale stretching from one to the other. Since the two things don’t exist, it is quite impossible to measure how near or far something is from them. Still, “objectivity” is not something anyone can get away with denouncing, so we need to find a more meaningful laudatory meaning for it.

A more likely interpretation of journalists’ notion of “objectivity” is – either entirely or in part – the use of a viewpoint that is middle-of-the-road, common, majoritarian, long-standing, accepted by others with power over means of communication, or situated between two competing opinions. Thus, for example, in Washington, D.C., it is entirely predictable how three stories on (roughly, of course) the same topic will differ as they appear in the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and the City Paper. Since the first of these will be in some ways between the other two, we can call it objective. But if we dismiss the City Paper as too small an operation, objectivity finds itself located somewhere between the Post and the Times. Were the Post to shut down, I shudder to think what objectivity would become.

There are other things often meant by “objectivity” as well, I think, including: avoiding colorful and emotional language. This is the scientistic mode of objectivity in which it is opposed to “emotionalism.” Just the facts. Simple declarative sentences. No exclamations, advice, guess work, predictions, lamentations, or opinions unless they are quoted opinions from somebody relevant according to the view from the middle of the road. This is the sort of thinking that lends the term “objective” a ring of superiority even though an argumentum ad populum is generally considered a mistake. If you call adopting a majority viewpoint “objective” you make it sound scientific and necessarily better in some mysterious way than any other viewpoints, including those that will be next century’s middle of the road.

My trouble in accepting this definition is that I hold too many opinions that are either not popular or not spoken of on NBC or in USA Today – minority and/or powerless opinions that others may find better or worse than the most popular and loudest views, but which are in no way any more or less scientific or unemotional. I’m unable to conflate middle-of-the-roadism with any admirable characteristic of good journalism.

I do, of course, believe there is good and bad journalism. And I believe good journalism begins with something many associate with scientific objectivity, namely avoidance of a preconception of what a story will be, and focus (in a way) on the importance of process rather than product in judging the goodness of the work.

If a story does not include anyone with an opposite opinion of one frequently expressed in the story, that tells me nothing about how well the reporting was done. If no one relevant held the missing opinion, then that is what should be reported. Were I to formulate an opinion and then go on a search to find someone who would state it for me, as Jeff has asked me to do and reportedly asked others to do, that would be the opposite of good journalism and the opposite of most people’s thought-through notion of “objectivity,” even if the end result allowed opposing “sides” to be presented.

Reporting should be inclusive. It should accept a variety of points of view without specifically trying to elicit them. Questions should be non-leading, and a reporter should select interviewees by their connections to an event or by anything else other than their expected statements. Openness to surprise is what makes good, honest, accurate, and useful stories. Each different viewpoint, once acquired, should be reported fairly and carefully. The relative expertise of various speakers should be reported open-mindedly.

But, of course, too much open-mindedness and your brains fall out. As Stanley Fish has dwelled on, “There is no such thing as free speech.” Speech is always from some limiting point of view. What is deemed important news is of more significance in determining what gets printed than how that which has been deemed news is covered.

By my tentative definition of good reporting as honest, open, inclusive, and accurate self-surprising, no across-the-board judgement can be made as to which is better reporting, the Post’s or the Times’. That contest has to be judged in each pairing of articles, on the basis of who left more out, who distorted more statistics to fit their viewpoint, who depicted a rare view as a common one or a fraud as a credible expert, who lied more. It’s not an easy question, and it cannot be strictly separated from the question of whose viewpoint one prefers. For example, how do you choose to measure the credibility of experts?

Reporting must be judged in light of evidence as to what was accurate or justified, and – unavoidably – in light of one’s preference for the selection of certain things as newsworthy. Is the fact that an organization published a survey and what it said important to report even if the organization itself admits that the thing in no way indicates anything about a larger group than the survey’s respondents? That’s not strictly a question of accuracy. It’s more a question of how interested one is in surveys for the sake of surveys. (Bob and I differ.) Should a story on a presidential election debate mention the opinions of the candidates locked out of that debate? That’s not a question of honesty or fairness or science, but it may be one of middle-of-the-roadism. It comes down to how important you think it is to include those views. In my judgement, most publications, most of the time, do not include enough views – be they views I admire, despise, or have no opinion on.

So, it’s not possible to judge the overall quality of reporting apart from subject matter, but it is possible to suggest generally good qualities, including things like honesty and accuracy that are often associated with the hodgepodge of notions people call “objectivity.”

The motivation of a publication is also relevant to all of this. Newspapers aim to do many things: award praise, please advertisers, influence elections, reduce crime, reveal corruption, encourage benevolence, etc. Some of these – such as pleasing advertisers – affect the journalism in ways I dislike. Others affect it in ways I do like. Journalism with absolutely no such motivation – absolutely no judgement as to what information it is important for readers to have – is an incoherent fantasy.

Some publications have unique motivations. I write for one that aims to give useful tips to labor unions and another that aims to give useful tips to employment managers. But useful for what? In one case, the answer seems to be: useful for successfully organizing, negotiating contracts that give unions and workers more power and benefits, preserving and creating good jobs, winning grievances, not breaking laws, and other things of the sort. For the other, it seems to be: useful for purchasing the latest computer programs, saving money, recruiting and retaining workers, maintaining power over workers, winning grievances, avoiding lawsuits, and things like that.

We sometimes report differently on the same event in these two publications, sometimes in the same way. Taken as a whole, the two seem very “even-handed,” unless – like me – you think employers in the U.S. generally have way too much power in comparison with unions. From that perspective, the union newsletter’s mission seems useful and the management one’s seems largely misguided. The even-handedness of the two is just part of a perspective that sees the status quo as needing little change.

For the most part, I can write the articles for the management rag. But sometimes this requires treating statistics as signs of workers’ laziness and dishonesty when I don’t think they’re that at all. Or it means reporting on a financial crisis for companies that are rolling in loot. In a section of the newsletter where we explicitly give advice, it can mean advising managers to work to minimize workers’ rights.

Where my viewpoint conflicts with the prescribed one, I have to alter it or risk an accusation of – guess what? – subjectivity or – as they sometimes call it – morality. Not only have I committed the sin of concerning myself with decency, but I’ve done bad journalism. This critique strikes me as not just cruel, but wonderfully ignorant as well.

Then there are the practices that go against honesty and accuracy. Bob has told me to adopt a policy of “don’t ask and don’t tell” with really lousy surveys. If we don’t ask how they were done, we won’t have to know we’re printing baseless assertions by self-interested parties. He even has different standards in this regard depending on how long the story is going to be. If it’s just a brief, it’s OK not to verify anything. With a longer story, it’s more important to check things out. And *I* am supposed to be the bad journalist! Am I insufficiently cynical, condescending, and irresponsible?

And the accusations of “subjectivity” reach me as such marvelously jumbled concoctions of hearsay and half-truths that the context of a journalistic setting makes them almost too funny or, rather, shocking to take seriously. Yet, I do take them seriously.

Things I had no idea were a problem are reported to a supervisor. An objection to giving cut-throat advice in an advice section is magically transformed into an insistence on writing a news headline that is the opposite of one I happened to write weeks before without insisting on it in any way.

Objecting to the notion that most temp workers want to be temps is disrespect of someone’s fragile sense of seniority. Asking “Who gave you the flowers?” constitutes prying into some relationship or other. Asking someone with a pack of cigarettes “Are you taking a drug break?” becomes a crusade against smoking.

Others have reportedly been hauled into the principal’s office for comments such as telling someone they looked younger than their age, or saying a television actress was pretty. What sort of madness is this? No law and no contract require such lunacy, and no workplace benefits from it.

Jeff, I object to the intrigue, the false accusations, the skeptical interrogations, and the idea that believing employers can be less than purely selfish is inferior journalism. But I think you are right that I’m no good for Bulletin to Management. I’ve learned some good information from my work on ULR. I’ll try to put it to good use elsewhere.

Perhaps, if you are still speaking to me after this, I will be able again to share opinions on various subjects with you without fearing that you will inevitably detect their insidious appearance in my reporting. I hope so.

I also respectfully hope you will consider the proposition that morality is absent from nothing; it is a question of what morality is present. Often we pretend to be morality-free when we have doubts about our conduct. Clinton does not see the abortion pill as something other than a murder weapon. Oh no, not at all. He is not involved in morality. He “addresses the issue from a purely scientific point of view.” Bulletin to Management does not advocate anything. Not at all. It carefully advises only what “everyone” already approves of. Were that possible, it would be merely pointless.


David Swanson

cc: Reza Namdar, Robert Teachout

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