Research: Commentary

Our Rinky Dink Scandal Culture

Huffington Post , October 11, 2010 | Article


The Wall Street Journal front page today featured a breathless report that 72 senior staffers for members of Congress had traded stocks in companies over which their bosses had some influence. Although the article noted that both Republicans and Democrats had participated in these legal trades, it spent a lot of the article focused on a relatively small -- and entirely legal -- $3,000 profit of a senior Harry Reid staffer from legitimate clean energy investments. This focus changed the article from a marginally interesting analysis of Congress's rules into a politically contrived pre-election hit piece.

What's most striking of all about the piece is the tiny profits made by staffers -- generally around a couple thousand dollars (the one more consequential trade, by a staffer for Republican Senator Mike Crapo, for tens of thousands of dollars in Bank of America stock for reasons I can't imagine was given much less space than far smaller trading by Democrats). And did I mention that the trades the Journal analyzed were legal?

This story is deep-sea fishing for journalists. Instead of analyzing the stock holdings or campaign contributions of actual members of Congress which frequently total in the millions of dollars -- they're going after the small fry. It's journalism based on the notion that every database deserves its own sensationalistic expose -- even when the information in the database is relatively ho-hum. The slogan of this journalism might be, "For every reporter a search engine and every candidate an attack ad."

The sad thing about this journalism is that it distracts attention from the real scandals in Washington -- the hundreds of millions of dollars going into buying elections by primarily pro-Republican independent groups like the Koch brothers and their oil industry empire.

Don't get me wrong -- it's fair to explore restrictions on how members of Congress and their staffs can own or trade stock. And it's as least as important to revisit the rules for executive branch employees, who usually have far more power over company profits than the people engaged in the uncertain and relatively public push and pull of the legislative process.

But with the enormous financial subversion of our democracy going on because of the unlimited corporate contributions made possible by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, a focus on anything so deep in the weeds as a few legal stock trades smacks of pre-meditated and purposeful diversion unworthy of the honored title of journalism.

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