The Hightower Lowdown

Less Muckraking, More Fluffmaking; Battling Biopiracy


Less Muckraking, More Fluffmaking

There once was a boisterous bar in Austin, that had a rollicking, good-time slogan: "Too Much Is Not Enough."

Unfortunately, these days, this could be the motto of big business executives and Wall Street investors who no longer are happy to make a good profit or even a fat profit -- they want to make a killing, no matter who or what gets killed. I'm not only talking here about the high tech greedheads, globalizing downsizers, and profiteering polluters, but also about companies that once showed some commitment to public service, like the newspaper business. To be sure, few newspapers ever spurned profits, but now the insistence on ever-greater profits is killing journalism itself.

Good papers have long prided themselves on solid, investigative reporting, measuring success by stories that bring the arrogant and avaricious to account. But instead of competing with other papers on the basis of high journalistic standards, the chain owners of America's press now vie on the basis of high profit margins -- and, when it comes to profits, too much is never enough. A 10% return on their investment would provide newspaper owners a mighty handsome living, but Wall Street analysts now scoff at that, demanding 25, 30, 35% annual return ... and more.

With newspapers having a hard time increasing sales, the only way to reach this level of profit is by cutting reporting staff and reporters' investigative budgets. For example, Knight Ridder, the chain that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, has more than doubled that paper's profits since 1995 by making such cuts. But 19% return is not enough, according to Knight Ridder, so they're now cutting another 100 people from the paper's staff, seeking to put a 21% profit margin in their pockets.

And you can bet that this won't be enough, either. More cuts will come to satisfy insatiable investors at the expense of readers, who'll get ever less muckraking and ever more fluffmaking from their daily press.


Battling Biopiracy

When the poor steal from the rich, it's called crime. When the rich steal from the poor, it's called business.

Monsanto, W.R. Grace, and other global giants are presently engaged in a particularly immoral theft against millions of poor people in places like India and South America. The people themselves have dubbed it "biopiracy," but these modern-day corporate pirates are too cowardly to confront their victims directly with swords drawn, like swashbuckling pirates of old. Instead, they hide behind a battalion of patent lawyers, who do their dirty work for them.

What they're doing is obtaining patents on indigenous plants that provide food, crops, medicine, income, and other needs of people in these impoverished regions. Basmati rice, the Neem tree, mustard, and the castor plant are among the living things that various corporations now claim "belong" to them, even though the companies did nothing to develop these plants except file the patents.

RiceTec Inc., for example, has grabbed 17 patents on Basmati rice, a variety that was bred over centuries by poor farmers in India. This rice is part of the collective wealth, knowledge, and culture of Indian farmers, but RiceTec now asserts that Basmati rice is its "property" by virtue of its patents. This isn't just stealing the collective innovation of these farmers; it's also immoral, because companies like RiceTec also are robbing them of their livelihoods. With a patent, RiceTec can claim that farmers who previously were free to plant Basmati rice from saved seeds must now pay the corporation a royalty.

The good news is that the world's farmers are uniting to challenge these patents and fighting such crass corporate thievery through the Global Campaign Against Biopiracy. To learn more, contact Dr. Vandana Shiva by e-mail: vshiva@vsnl.com.


When Pigs Fly First Class

I've seen some pretty piggish passengers in my time -- people who insult flight attendants, grunt loudly into their cell phones, slop their drinks on others -- but this is the first time I've heard of an actual pig flying, much less flying first class. U.S. Airways reports that two women were allowed to board the six-hour, nonstop flight from Philadelphia to Seattle with their pig. It seems that when they made their reservations, they had produced a doctor's note declaring the animal to be a "therapeutic companion pet," like a seeing-eye-dog. They also said their little piggy weighed 13 pounds, but someone who watched it arrive at the gate said: "I'd estimate 300 pounds. It took four people to wheel it in."

Knight Ridder reports that the plane's flight attendants objected to letting it on board, but the airline's legal department cleared the oinker for takeoff. No, it didn't get its own seat, but it did lie on the floor at the feet of the two women. There was no report on whether it had drinks and was served a first-class dinner.

As for the women's claim that flying with a 300-pound porker was a medical necessity, a fellow passenger observed: "Frankly, I couldn't tell what kind of therapeutic service it was providing. All I know is, it was ugly and it pooped." That's not all it did. Upon landing in Seattle, the big pig panicked and went squealing loudly up and down the aisle. Then it tried to hog its way into the cockpit. This would have been the world's first case of a hog hijacking.

First-class travel just isn't what it used to be. You never know who'll be sitting next to you.

For more information on Jim Hightower's work – and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown – visit www.jimhightower.com. You can hear his radio commentaries on KOOP Radio, 91.7FM, weekdays at 10:58am and 12:58pm.

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