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When corporations have the last word

By Richard L. Strout / May 14, 1982



When big corporations feel that somebody is abusing them they always have the option of buying newspaper space and replying. These replies are not exactly political advertisements for they don't ask anybody to vote for somebody, and they are not ordinary commercial advertisements for they are not asking the public to buy something. They fall into a different and interesting category in the ever-changing world of journalism, mass communication, and opinion-making. Here are a couple of examples and I wonder if they set a trend.

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The first is a full-page May 4 advertisement in the New York Times, signed by ''James E. Stewart of Lone Star Industries, Inc., of Greenwich, Conn.'' and crying in large print (under a drawing of the Capitol and a black streak labeled ''Potomac'') ''West of the Potomac: It's tough out here!!!'' with three exclamation marks. Obviously Greenwich, Conn., Mr. Stewart's corporate base, is not west of the Potomac, but the advertisement is evidently thinking of the whole country, and it is directed at ''Members of Congress'' and is complaining of high interest rates. Reference to the statistical files of Value Line show that Lone Star is the largest cement producer in the Western Hemisphere. It has some 11,123,000 shares of common stock selling for around $30. The essence of Mr. Stewart's appeal to Congress is that most of the nation lives ''west of the Potomac,'' that they are suffering from high interest rates, and that Congress should do something about it: ''Put the country back to work. We vote!'' Mr. Stewart urges readers to send their views to Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker who has his hand on the throttle of interest rates, obviously in the hope of getting them down.

A journalist must look at the challenging appeal with considerable interest. There is no question that Mr. Stewart is right in one respect -- this is one of the hottest issues in town. Has the regular press given it adequate coverage? I think it has, and that it and Congress are anxiously aware of the problems west of the Potomac.

But how can we be sure? Here is another advertisement placed by United Technologies Corp. in Harper's Magazine and in the Economist, labeled ''Where the Media Elite Stand.'' United Technologies has some 51,246,000 outstanding shares of common stock. It is located in Hartford, Conn., where Harry Gray is chairman. The advertisement says that we have shifted ''from an industrial to an information society'' and that ''a new elite has risen in the land. Its members work in the news media. They're the media's heavyweights, courted by politicians , studied by scholars, pampered by peers.'' United Technologies tells us about them from ''a major study performed under the auspices of Columbia University's Research Institute on International Change.''

I don't know whether to be alarmed or flattered. I find that 54 percent of ''leading journalists'' count themselves as ''liberals.'' Only 19 percent (according to the survey) describe themselves as ''right of center.'' Even sharper contrasts show up when the elite core examine themselves and ''rate their cohorts'' (whatever a cohort is). ''Overwhelmingly, the media elite vote for Democratic candidates in presidential elections.''

Well, well. I wish United Technologies would define ''media elite''; have I made the grade? As asserted in advertisements in England and America: ''they show special fondness for welfare capitalism. . .many top journalists express general discontent with the social order.'' There is one reassuring thing however; ''few are outright socialists.''

I find it hard to deal with this study. It seems accusatory. The words ''liberal'' and ''right of center'' are not defined. The study says it includes reporters from leading newspapers, Time, Newsweek, and so on. Is the nation the victim of mass conspiracy? Sometimes I breakfast with reporters assembled by Monitor bureau chief Godfrey Sperling Jr, with a guest. There are Republicans and Democrats. They are rather alert types; reasonably middle class, I think, and do not look subversive...

Let us remember that there's a world ''east of the Potomac.'' And we can debate at leisure the assertion of United Technologies' experts that ''at least now there's scholarly confirmation of the ideological and political tilt of many of the folks who declaim daily, in print and on the tube, on the shape of the world.'' At least we've been warned.