BOB GARFIELD: On a lazy summer’s day a week ago, NPR host Guy Raz of Weekend, All Things Considered was seven minutes into a story on the minimum wage.
GUY RAZ: …from Iowa. Now, opponents of his bill do point to jobs, that with such high unemployment an increase in the minimum wage will actually make it worse. That's what Joe Olivo argues. He owns a small printing press in New Jersey, and he employs 47 people. And I asked Olivo how a higher minimum wage would affect him.
JOE OLIVO: It has the effect of lifting the entire wage scale up, because what happens is the employee that's been here for maybe three years and has more experience than a person making an entry-level wage, they will rightfully want more for their experience and seniority.
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BOB GARFIELD: The interviewee was Joe Olivo, proprietor of Perfect Printing in Moorestown, New Jersey and, it would seem, quite a find, a real life small businessman who can articulate a policy question succinctly and without rancor.
In fact, he was equally good a week earlier in a Morning Edition piece on healthcare by NPR’s Yuki Noguchi.
YUKI NOGUCHI: The legislation will give some small businesses tax incentives to pay for employee health care. Starting in 2014, those with 50 or more employees will be required to provide it….
That's bad news for businesses like Perfect Printing in Moorestown, New Jersey. Joe Olivo is its president. Olivo says he now has 48 employees, for whom he pays some healthcare coverage, but he's intensely aware of crossing that 50-person threshold and will think very hard before hiring more people, so he can avoid hitting government requirements that he says will raise his healthcare costs.
JOE OLIVO: It's really going to slow down how much I wish to grow because I'm going to have to put a lot of my resources…
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BOB GARFIELD: Olivo was a find, all right. If you’d been paying attention, you could find him on NBC:
ANNE THOMPSON: For small business owners like Joe Olivo, it is the unknown cost of the law that could impact his printing business…
JOE OLIVO: Without a doubt, it’s something that we’re ready to expand. And at this point, what I’ll do is either hold off or I may hire part-time employees, and…
BOB GARFIELD: And CNBC, MS-NBC, Fox News Channel, Fox News Channel, Fox Business News, Fox Business News and Fox News Channel. Minimum wage, taxation and especially healthcare reform, for years, Olivo has become one of the media’s go-to voices of Main Street. Call him “Joe the Printer.”
Journalistically, this speaks to a certain poverty of imagination. It also speaks to a poverty of information, because hardly anyone bothers to mention Olivo’s membership and New Jersey leadership position in the National Federation of Independent Business, an advocacy group that has been advocating hard against healthcare reform since the Clinton administration.
And how do reporters and producers find Joe the Printer? Some, of course, see his name elsewhere in the press, but often enough they are given his name by the National Federation of Independent Business. Joe Olivo:
JOE OLIVO: Because of their size and the media contacts they have, they’ve certainly given the ability to me, when I feel that I need to get my message out, it is something that they help me do at times. Other times, it’s – a reporter is calling me directly.
BOB GARFIELD: Olivo hastens to add that he isn’t on the organization’s payroll, doesn’t even accept reimbursement of his expenses and never says a single word in public that doesn’t reflect his honest-to-God, day-to-day challenges trying to run the family business.
JOE OLIVO: I’m telling a story and yes, I may be telling it over and in different variations on different networks, but it’s my story. So I don’t – I, I don’t really understand what there is to discover or what else they – they would need to disclose.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, if you heed the left wing blogosphere, NPR, NBC, Fox and the rest should have disclosed that Olivo is a Trojan horse for moneyed conservative interests who will spare no subterfuge to destroy Obamacare.
But perhaps a more reasonable line of argument is, don’t news organizations owe their audience enough information to evaluate the motives and affiliations of the speaker? That’s precisely the question we posed to NPR OmbudsmanEdward Schumacher-Matos who sort of – shrugged.
EDWARD SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Does it look embarrassing? Yeah – yeah, it looks embarrassing. But is there a major ethical issue here? No. Clearly, he represents a point of view. And so, the bigger issue is - were the stories fair, were the stories accurate. They were. Both stories actually represented the other side of the view even more than they had Olivo’s view. So that to me counts more than anything else.
It’s a judgment call then about how much you should say about this guy’s background. Well, I don’t think they should have used him, but not because he had some relationship with the NFIB, but just because he was, you know, old and enough of this guy already.
BOB GARFIELD: As the listeners’ representative, as the proxy for the audience, when you hear a guy who is introduced, giving whatever opinion on whatever subject, and there is no affiliation or context given, aren’t you assuming that he is representing only himself?
EDWARD SCHUMACHER-MATOS: He does represent only himself. He does not represent the organization. The issue is, is he representative or not. And I think he is representative of a large number, if not a majority, of small business people. That’s the number one issue. Is he representative or not? And he is. Is he someone that they like to trot out a lot? Yes. Is he an official of the organization or a spokesperson for the organization? No.
BOB GARFIELD: Actually, he is in the NFIB state leadership. But never mind. Spokesman or not, Olivo is clearly a poster child, an active advocate against healthcare reform since 1993, when he traveled to Washington to protest the Clinton plan.
Yet, NPR, among other news organizations, led us to assume he was just some random guy discovered off the street. A source at NBC News told us their error of omission was an oversight. Schumacher-Matos says his ombudsman column will take up the issue of journalistic laziness. How NPR News itself regards the episode, we cannot say.