CPSIA and the national press

by Walter Olson on February 3, 2009

I was sitting down to write a more extended post about the press’s treatment of the CPSIA controversy when I found that Prof. Mark Obbie, whose LawBeat blog watches the world of legal journalism closely, had already said much of what I wanted to say (while generously citing my work along the way). So instead I will refer you to him, and just add a few further observations.

As do I, Prof. Obbie finds noteworthy the “weird blind spot” of the New York Times, which as I noted a week and a half ago (citing commenter Amy Hoffman)

still has not covered this debacle — a crucial point, since it’s hard to get an issue truly onto the news agenda at other highly ranked media outlets if the Times refuses to notice it…. There’s something truly crazy here, given that the Times plays a conscious role as a key trend-spotter in both the design world and the apparel trade, as well as the world of law and governance.

As of Monday, three days after the CPSC’s stay and weeks after the outcry over the law had surfaced in places like the Washington Post (Dec. 21), Wall Street Journal (Jan. 8), Detroit News (Jan. 10) and Los Angeles Times (Jan. 2), the only notice of the controversy to be found in the Times’s index was what Obbie rightly labels “this pathetic gesture, cribbed from the Bloomberg wire, published on Saturday’s page B2 in the Times”. The tiny 45-word piece commits the typical beginner’s mistake (which, I hasten to add, I committed myself on Jan. 2 before I’d begun to look at the issue carefully) of mentioning only toys as a target of the law, thus missing most of its actual sweep.

The Times was hardly alone in being stone deaf. If any serious reporting on the law went out over the national Associated Press or Reuters wires, or on any of the three old-line TV networks or PBS over the past two months, I missed it, though of course I am happy to be corrected if a reader calls it to my attention.

It will be noted that good coverage of CPSIA frequently emanated from “Style”, local-beat, or feature/human interest reporters, and much less often from Washington or government bureaus. I observed in my second Forbes piece that in some quarters of the elite press

it’s usual to turn for guidance on consumer issues to groups like Public Citizen or U.S. PIRG — the very groups who gave us CPSIA in the first place.

I think Washington-based reporting is particularly prone to a version of this problem. The reporter and editor will ordinarily want to be fair and not just run with whatever line Public Citizen or PIRG are putting out, so they know they need to track down the other side of the story. The problem of course is buried in that phrase “the other”. The temptation (which, of course, the consumer group will often encourage) is to designate as “the other” side some big industry or household-name business with a lobbyist, trade association, or P.R. firm conveniently present on the Washington scene to be dialed up — in this case, someone like the Big Two giant toymakers known for their mass-merchandised Chinese imports, or maybe a retailer like Wal-Mart or Target.

We now realize in retrospect something that may not have been quite as apparent earlier when CPSIA was being pushed to approval amid near-unanimous cheering in the press: that the interests of these mass merchandisers may diverge quite drastically from that of small toy, garment, or school-supply makers or retailers not present at the Washington negotiation table, and that laws mass producers can “live with” and are willing to sign off on are not necessarily compatible with the survival of the small makers and sellers. So the story told from inside Washington will be quite different from the story told later outside. That’s my theory, anyway, to account for the selective deafness of some sectors of the national press, and perhaps in particular some editors and publishers who self-consciously concern themselves with questions of high national policy.

More: Welcome NRO “Corner” readers (Iain Murray); our CPSIA coverage is here. And Prof. Obbie has more.

{ 5 trackbacks }

CPSIA chronicles, February 6
02.06.09 at 10:00 am
CPSIA: fifty stars and an asterisk
02.08.09 at 11:52 pm
CPSIA chronicles, February 13
02.13.09 at 1:05 pm
New York Times on CPSIA: “needless fears that the law could injure smaller enterprises”
02.18.09 at 11:35 am
CPSIA: N.Y. Times prints three letters
02.23.09 at 8:29 am

{ 4 comments }

1 kathleen 02.03.09 at 10:02 am

You forgot to mention NPR (ME or ATC) failed to cover the story either. Weeks ago I talked to an NPR reporter, giving her background, resources and names of people to interview. She was incredulous saying CPSIA was the funniest thing she’d heard in months and months.

I kind of wonder if the NYT/NPR have passed on the story precisely because the right wing (some real nutjobs, not even first tier) talk show hosts picked it up the topic and ran with it so it gave an off flavor patina to the issue, particularly when coupled with some painful populist rhetoric complete with untenable demands from one individual from “our” side. I think he lost us a lot of credibility.

UPDATE (this window’s been open on my computer since I got up and hadn’t hit send): I just finished an interview with NPR. Let’s hope it runs (nationally).

2 Jen D 02.03.09 at 10:23 am

I have contacted the NYT, CNN and NPR begging them to cover this issue. “Screaming into the wind” comes to mind. Not only have our congressional reps turned a deaf ear, so has the national media. If I were prone to paranoia, I’d have a conspiracy theory.

Mr. Olson, thank you for your continued attention and excellent reporting on this issue. You are my best source of information.

3 joliefay2003 02.03.09 at 12:27 pm

NPR did cover it, although not enough. It was on “marketplace” and we had weekly coverage on our OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting)

USA Today is also working on a piece and should be out in the next day or two.

Thank you, Walter, for leading this. I am the story you are writing. I work from home, make lead free apparel and have been working on the CPSIA for the last 7 weeks.

One point I do not hear mentioned enough is the effects of turning XRF (x-ray guns) into the hands of untrained women across the country to meet “reasonable self testing”. I had this XRF machine in my hands, for almost 15 hours on the day of my testing. What is that going to do to me? I was/am fighting for my livelihood, and scared so I did not hesitate when I was given the opportunity to use the machine and know I could stay in business for 7 more months, but this is not right.

I know many bills are signed without members of congress reading them, but I also know the people who wrote this law knew what it would do to small business and they wrote it and passed it anyway.

4 Rachel 02.03.09 at 5:15 pm

While I agree that coverage of this legislation has been ubiquitously left out of many major news sources, I did see an Associated Press article about the stay (http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5g5s6bPv0SwNhjeKksvOGGx-ihx7wD961SHK84). I wouldn’t say that they did very good job of covering the real issues with the legislation, but at least they wrote something. I’m surprised that the NYT didn’t copy & paste the AP at least.

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