Over the last several days, the Boston Herald has had its knives out in no less than three articles and two editorials against MassHousing—an independent, quasi-public agency created in 1966 and charged with providing financing for affordable housing in Massachusetts.
Readers can be forgiven for assuming that such lavish attention from a publication that is a shadow of its former self (since its purchase and gutting by the hedge fund-owned Digital First Media) must be due to some tremendous scandal. Major malfeasance. Looting of the public till on a scale not seen since the days of Sal DiMasi.
But no, they’re freaking out about travel expenses, per diems, staff parties, and some leased cars. And running photos of receipts showing MassHousing execs spending $50 or $60 per person for meals. Like they’re breaking Wikileaks or something.
All of which is red meat for the Herald’s dwindling audience of aging, downwardly mobile, perpetually furious, white male racists in Boston’s near suburbs. Although, surely the fact that MassHousing happens to be run by a black woman is purely coincidental to the story. Far be it from the Hub’s famously reactionary number two newspaper to play the race card in one of its carefully targeted jeremiads.
Naturally, as a top editor of an even smaller metro news outlet, I implicitly understand where they’re coming from with this latest crusade. Thus, I am the soul of compassion when it comes to considering the travails of deploying the armamentarium of investigative journalism against slightly spendthrift quasi-public servants instead of going after any of the several hundred more important stories involving actual corruption in our City of Champions (including corruption around our much-vaunted sports teams and their stadiums).
And OK, sure, this little tempest in a teapot is a legitimate story—if a narrow and largely pointless one that boils down to what menu items the editors of a dying rag think are appropriate fare for public employees on work trips. Which keeps an appropriate number of eyeballs on the ads of the Herald’s print and digital pages while likely not resulting in any more important outcome than forcing some hapless MassHousing staffers to have to eat McDonald’s and stay in crappy motels when travelling on agency business for the next couple of years. But a story somewhere within the bounds of acceptable journalism nonetheless. Pointing out, as it does in one installment, that although MassHousing is self-funded by selling bonds, it still indirectly costs taxpayers money to run given that those bonds are sold tax free. And thus, its spending habits are cause for some public concern. However small that concern might be.
Still, reading this latest series from the Herald reminded me of something I ponder from time to time when surveying the American press.
Public officials and staffers, the vast majority of whom do their jobs decently well, are always and ever the targets of similar “investigations.” Notably by journalists with ambulance-chasing local TV news shows and tabloids like our newly Braintree-based paper of record. Which typically involve pulling some public spending records, printing some receipts, and shouting the news version of “nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah” at any local or state government department with the misfortune to be within easy striking distance of such misguided efforts. The conservative media especially revels in imposing the most stern discipline on anyone whose salary is taxpayer funded. Although, in fairness, the higher the office, the more muted that criticism becomes. At least until Trump arrived in the Oval Office.
Funny thing, though. The selfsame news outlets virtually never scrutinize corporate executives’ often profligate spending habits in the same way.
Why? Well because their money comes from good old fashioned “private enterprise,” of course!
A conceit so wrongheaded that it can only be the result of willful ignorance or ideology. And since I prefer not to assume that my colleagues are stupid people, I’d rather assume the latter rationale.
That is, capitalist ideology—Fox News ravings to the contrary—is so pervasive in the US that it causes trained journalists to ignore the massive and endless corruption inside and outside government caused by a political economic system that puts profit above all other things.
Somehow most right-wingers and the many moderate left-wingers that Americans like to call liberals actually believe that private money is private. In a country where it is the rare corporation that isn’t fighting tooth and nail to dip its greedy paws into the biggest money river of all: the government budget. City, state, or federal government makes no difference. Corporations aren’t picky, they’ll take it wherever they find it. And then put out so much propaganda—sorry, PR—about their public rent-seeking that most Americans actually end up thanking them for their “innovation.”
Meanwhile, the leaders of major companies like General Electric, Vertex, and Amazon—all of which I’ve written about—wouldn’t be caught dead in some punter’s $300-a-night hotel room when traveling on business. They stay in suites in the best hotels. Or they rent nice houses.
As for their meals, they sup at the toniest steakhouses and fine dining establishments on offer. Or hire private chefs from the top caterers and restaurants. And they travel in limousines, yachts, helicopters, and private jets. So a trip for top corporate execs for a couple of days might easily cost tens of thousands of dollars.
But I understand. Even though corporations rig government spending from top to bottom to flow directly into their coffers in this era of neoliberal capitalism, they’re still private companies. So it’s not a fair comparison to some public or quasi-public agency like MassHousing. Or is it?
Regardless, there is a better comparison.
Let’s talk about public utilities. You know… those big private companies that only exist because decades back their predecessor companies lobbied governments at all levels to give them guaranteed regional monopolies to provide vital services like electric power and natural gas. Which would be much better provided directly by governments minus the middlemen. But this is America, and that’s the system we’re currently saddled with.
Such utilities are a racket. Everybody knows it. They are nominally regulated in Massachusetts by the Department of Public Utilities. By a board that includes former leaders of those same utilities. Meaning that the DPU is yet another victim of “regulatory capture” by the very industry it is mandated to keep an eye on.
As we’ve seen with the recent National Grid and Columbia Gas crises, they are terrible companies with bad labor track records that continually increase rates to consumers while cutting corners on critical maintenance and, therefore, public safety.
They rake in vast amounts of profits every year. And their top executives are handsomely remunerated for their services. With compensation packages paying far more the $270,000 a year the head of MassHousing is making. (Something that often holds true even for midlevel execs that manage department staffs equivalent in size to the quasi-public agency’s 327 employees, as cited in its Information Statement of December 21, 2018.)
For example, National Grid plc (the UK multinational that owns the US National Grid division) CEO John Mark Pettigrew got a total compensation package of about $5,997,000 (£4,600,000) in 2017. NiSource (the US corporation that owns Columbia Gas) CEO Joseph Hamrock got a total package of $5,407,202 that same year. Eversource Energy CEO James J. Judge got a total package of (a whopping) $9,045,607.
The Herald has written articles about all these Mass utilities. Some of them critical about aspects of their businesses.
But try to find even a single article in the Herald or any other significant news outlet that criticizes any top executive at any of those companies for their spending habits on or off the job.
You’ll be searching for a long time.
Because you won’t generally find articles poring over corporate executives’ expense accounts for parties and travel and company cars except on the rare occasion one is caught up in something like a sex scandal or murders someone in cold blood.
But what does get published is a constant stream of “lifestyles of the rich and famous” articles. Glowing portraits of the executives’ latest mansions. Puffball interviews about favorite meals at exclusive bistros. Profiles of their jets. And their cute little purebred doggies. Plus hagiographic bio pieces.
Yet those utility CEOs and their companies are gouging ratepayers every year for amounts similar to a good chunk of their annual tax bills. All under the watch of state and federal governments that are supposed to be regulating them.
They are taking mountains of money from the populace every year just like the Mass Department of Revenue or the Internal Revenue Service do. To provide vital public services in the public interest. But they get a free pass on everything from business travel expenses to corporate ethics from the supposedly vigilant news media. Only when a corporation does something obviously horrendous like lock out over 1,000 union employees for half a year without pay or benefits or blow up the Merrimack Valley do we finally see some real opprobrium from the fourth estate.
And by then it’s too late. The damage is already done.
So while I certainly agree that it is the job of investigative journalists to scrutinize the inner workings of MassHousing and every other public or quasi-public agency in the Bay State—understanding that I would prefer ongoing structural analysis over what amounts to cheap shots over menu choices—I think it is long past time to have the same level of scrutiny on corporate chieftains who make vast profits on the back of the public at large. One way or the other.
What’s good for the goose, as the saying goes, is most certainly good for the gander.
If reporters think that public agency execs deserve to put under a magnifying glass, then why not corporate execs? Particularly corporate execs working for public utilities.
Fair’s fair, right?
Because American journalists, as defenders of our society’s core democratic values, are all about fairness… aren’t we?
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.