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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Johnston: Praise, and Criticism, for an NYT Series on Corporate Welfare

Columbia Journalism Review LogoColumbia Journalism Review:  Praise, and Criticism, for an NYT Series on Corporate Welfare, by David Cay Johnston:

Many of the most important stories develop for years before they get covered because no one makes an official announcement, there is no central point where events occur, and the facts are scattered, subtle, and sometimes buried. Gene Roberts, the legendary executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, often said these are stories that “ooze.”

In a widely applauded three-part series last month, The New York Times took a long, deep look at an important story that has oozed for decades: state and local subsidies to businesses.

Reporter Louise Story wrote in the first installment that the Times “analyzed more than 150,000 awards and created a searchable database of incentive spending.” The paper pegged the annual cost to taxpayers of the programs it identified at more than $80 billion, though it added that “the cost of the awards is certainly far higher.”

The series drew immediate and profuse praise. ... The series, on a vital but under-covered public issue, deserves much of this acclaim. The package compellingly portrays the power imbalance between corporations and local governments in negotiations over incentives, as well as the uncertain, and often unmeasured, benefits of these subsidies to the states and communities that bestow them.

But within days of publication the series also began to draw measured criticism not from the companies it exposed for taking taxpayer money, but from several of its own sources as well as noted authorities on the subsidy issues. These critiques—which amount to worries that the Times may have simultaneously understated and overstated the scale, and misstated the nature, of subsidies to business—were joined to praise for the effort. But with the Times package drawing mention in local coverage of these issues around the country, it is worth taking a closer look back at the criticisms now, because the series will continue to influence work by other news organizations—especially as state legislatures convene for a new year and budget debates move to the top of the news agenda.

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