Specialty sites and corporate hypocrisy: Journalism worth paying attention to

The role of newspapers is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Mr. Dooley, the fictional 19th century Chicago bartender who first uttered a version of the phrase, would celebrate Judd Legum, especially the afflicting the comfortable bit.

Legum publishes the daily digital newsletter, “Popular Information,” that focuses on corporate accountability.

There are a number of major news organizations that do excellent investigative reporting, holding the comfortable accountable. But newsrooms generally have cut staff over the last 20 years — many smaller news orgs have gone out of business entirely, and people now discuss “news deserts.” The transition to digital was not pretty or smooth in the news industry.

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That created openings for entrepreneurial journalists like Legum to create specialty news or “niche” products that thrive because they inform us. The Chronicle of Higher Education has long been a standard-bearer in the genre, offering in-depth investigations and analysis of the higher education landscape. The people at the Boston Globe created STATnews.com, an excellent source of information on healthcare. Others abound.

But no-one does corporate accountability — or hypocrisy — like Legum does.

When powerful companies like General Motors, Google, and AT&T hypocritically take both sides on an issue — the high road in public, the more parochial one quietly — Legum and his two assistants pounce, holding the companies’ feet to the fire.

They meticulously mine public records, examine data, campaign finance reports. “I love research,” says the 42-year-old Legum, who began that discipline in law school, helping his professor, John PodestaJohn PodestaSpecialty sites and corporate hypocrisy: Journalism worth paying attention to Durham's latest indictment: More lines drawn to Clinton's campaign Huawei paid Tony Podesta 0K for White House lobbying MORE, who'd been White House chief of staff.

When Podesta ran the liberal think tank, Center for American Progress, he hired Legum, who developed a blog, “Think Progress,” that broke news, created waves and held the powerful accountable.

Legum’s penchant for research — and connection to Podesta — drew him to serve as research director for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE’s 2008 presidential campaign, after which eventually returned to “Think Progress,” which he grew to 10 million unique visitors per month.

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“Judd always was seeing over the horizon on the changing media landscape,” says Podesta. “He was a trend-setter for a new style of investigative reporting. He has taken these skills to ‘Popular Information,’ which continues to break ground and break great stories.”

Some examples:

Many leading companies — like GM and Walmart — strongly advocate for legislation to address the climate change crisis. General Motors enthusiastically endorsed the Build Back Better bill, which includes support for electric vehicles. Congressional passage was “critical,” the company said. A top Walmart executive said private actions on climate change aren't nearly enough, that lawmakers should “act now and with urgency,” on the congressional bill.

A leading opponent of the bill, which includes tax increases, is the Business Roundtable, consisting of top corporate CEOs, which claims the bill would put American companies at a competitive disadvantage.

The chair of the Business Roundtable this year is Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart. He will be succeeded next year by Mary Barra, the CEO of GM.

Legum drilled down on these giant companies trying to have it both ways.

After the Jan. 6 Trump-inspired mob assault on the Capitol, hundreds of corporations — with an eye on their younger, more progressive employees — committed to stop funding any of those 147 House Republicans who, after the riot, voted against certifying the Biden President victory.

AT&T said employees in its federal political action committee decided to suspend any contributions to those Republicans.

Months later, Legum revealed, AT&T donated $5,000 to the House Conservative Fund, led by Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, a ringleader of the objectors and who filed a brief supporting the fringe Texas lawsuit to overturn election results in other states. AT&T told Legum it was assured that contributions wouldn't go to the resisters. They haven't said who it's going to since most of their members opposed validating Biden's legitimate victory.

Similarly, there was corporate outrage at voter suppression. Google said it opposed any efforts to restrict voting; likewise, Deloitte vowed to fight against any legislation that would restrict voting rights. However, “Popular Information” reported that both companies contributed to the Republican State Leadership Committee, a leader of the voter suppression efforts enacted in several states.

Legum wrote stories this year on under-the-radar lobbying by big banks, among others, and on campaign finance contributions. He detailed the phoniness of right-wing venues pretending to be legitimate news organizations.

When John Stewart was leading Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” he was sometimes criticized as if he were a journalist, rather than a comedian. That’s in part because he often did what journalists should have been doing but too often weren’t — and because, as a comedian, he had the latitude to say things journalists couldn’t.

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Legum’s reporting skewers the same kinds of hypocrisy that Stewart did, but he does it as a journalist.

With newsrooms cutting back and too often focusing on the popular rather than the important, the vested interests too often stay below the radar. Some of the tax proposals in the big bill now before Congress have been gutted without the public knowing who played a role.

“Corporations are so powerful, have so much influence they have to held accountable,” says Legum. “There is a lot of very good business reporting, not as much on accountability, hypocrisy.”

These big corporations, of course, have the right to take and petition for positions — even if hypocritical — that argue for climate change legislation on one hand but against the tax increases that would finance them on the other. But they should be held accountable. Judd Legum does that.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.