On NBC, the missing story about parent company General Electric

March 29, 2011

It’s the kind of accountability journalism that makes readers raise an eyebrow, if it doesn’t raise their blood pressure first. General Electric Co., reported the New York Times last week, earned $14.2 billion in worldwide profits last year, including $5.1 billion in the United States — and paid exactly zero dollars in federal taxes.

The front-page story drew widespread commentary in newspapers and on many Web sites. ABC News and Fox News, among others, were all over it.

But the story was conspicuously absent from the reportage of one news organization: NBC.

During its Friday broadcast, “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” had no time to mention that America’s largest corporation had essentially avoided paying federal taxes in 2010. Or its Saturday, Sunday or Monday broadcasts, either.

Did NBC’s silence have anything to do with the fact that one of its parent companies is General Electric?

NBC News representatives say that it didn’t. “This was a straightforward editorial decision, the kind we make daily around here,” said Lauren Kapp, spokeswoman for NBC News. Kapp declined to discuss how NBC decides what’s news or, in this case, what isn’t.

But to others, NBC’s silence looks like something between a lapse and a coverup. The satirical “Daily Show” on Monday noted that “Nightly News” had time on Friday to squeeze in a story about the Oxford English Dictionary adding such terms as “OMG” and “muffin top,” but didn’t bother with the GE story.

Ignoring stories about its parent company’s activities is “part of a troubling pattern” for NBC News, said Peter Hart, a director at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal media watchdog group that often documents instances of corporate interference in news. He cited a series of GE-related stories that NBC’s news division has underplayed over the years, from safety issues in GE-designed nuclear power plants to the dumping of hazardous chemicals into New York’s Hudson River by GE-owned plants.

What’s more, Hart notes, NBC News has covered corporate tax-avoidance stories before — that is, when they didn’t involve GE. All three networks’ news divisions, according to Hart, have become reliable sources of publicity for their parents’ other corporate interests, doing news stories about upcoming sporting events or new TV shows carried on their own networks.

“It’s very curious,” Hart said. “Imagine if a different company were involved. If you changed the name to Citibank or Goldman Sachs, would NBC be interested in the story then? I suspect they would be.”

NBC’s news division didn’t avert its eyes entirely. The subject came up briefly on Rachel Maddow’s Friday-night program on MSNBC (“Why lower taxes when companies like this are already paying nothing?” she asked). Another MSNBC prime-time host, Lawrence O’Donnell, was sharply critical (“Shocking,” he called it). The subject was also raised during a panel discussion Friday on a CNBC program hosted by Larry Kudlow.

But those programs have a fraction of the audience of NBC’s top-rated nightly newscast or its leading Sunday public-affairs program, “Meet the Press,” which also didn’t delve into the subject. The MSNBC and CNBC shows also likely have less credibility than NBC’s venerable newscast and public-affairs program.

News organizations often wrestle with how to report on their own mistakes and those of their parent companies. ABC and Fox, for example, have been chided by critics over the years for glossing over unflattering news about their parent companies, the Walt Disney Co. and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., respectively.

The Washington Post has received its share of criticism for failing to disclose its corporate interests at times. However, it has often reported its own bad news, from its quickly ditched plan to host closed-door “salons” for government officials and big-money customers in 2009 to a recent series of plagiarized articles by a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.

News outlets should “fight like hell” to cover their own dirty laundry because failing to do so hurts the organization’s credibility, said Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism-education institution.

“If people in your audience are savvy enough to raise the question of why you’re covering your own parent company differently than another company,” she said, “then it doesn’t matter what the answer is. You’ve undermined your credibility. The problem for any news organization is death by a thousand daggers.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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