By Jennifer Merritt In today's climate of corporate scandal, when CEOs seem to be falling from grace like raindrops from the sky, regular folks and business writers alike would be grateful for an organization, a Web site -- anything -- that keeps tabs on corporations, if only so the headlines don't make us choke on our morning cereal. So, you might think you've hit the jackpot with CorpWatch.org, a nonprofit whose Web site bears the same name.
I logged on expecting to learn all about their watchdogging, perhaps uncover the next possible trouble spot -- and adjust my 401(k) allocations -- before news of the next corporate scandal makes every newspaper and morning TV program in America. Unfortunately, the site falls well short of being a serious, thoughtful Corporate America watchdog, settling instead for leftist screeds based on selective presentation of facts. It's a glitzy, well-packaged soap box for CorpWatch's anticorporate politics, featuring fact sheets, updates on the group's efforts to head off global corporate sprawl, and more.
NEW ENRON ANGLE? It didn't take me long to figure out CorpWatch.org isn't the kind of corporate monitor the country could use now. On the left side of its home page, the site has a list of links to coverage of the issues it follows most closely. When I saw the subtitle "Enron," I thought "Jackpot!" and clicked away.
I read the first paragraph: "How could one of the most wealthy and powerful corporations in the world go bust overnight?" Yes, please tell me: I want to hear the tale of Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow. However, it quickly becomes clear what CorpWatch's real agenda is. Its coverage revolves more around Enron's alleged human-rights violations in India and its connections to Washington insiders than its finances (and what it has on Enron's finances seems like old stuff taken from the financial press).
Disturbingly, its Enron Fact File highlighted Enron-related political donations only to Republican candidates and interests, leaving out the widely publicized donations to Democrats. From there, CorpWatch.org calls the company to task for its alleged environmental transgressions and its supposed mistreatment of Native American interests. It wasn't the scintillating accounting scandal recap I expected and broke little if any new ground that mattered.
A REAL MUCKRAKER. CorpWatch looks especially poor when compared with www.opensecrets.org, the Center For Responsive Politics' Web site. The Washington organization understands two things essential to being taken seriously as a muckraker: You have to have new information, and you have to dish out criticism to whomever deserves it.
Looking at opensecrets.org's complete, authoritative list of where Enron's money went, you see that the two top House recipients, and three of the top five, are Democrats. Reporters take the organization seriously because it almost always has the facts, and has them straight.
The problem with CorpWatch's content is that there seems to be little evidence of in-depth research in many of the group's position statements and no expert opinions to speak of. What you get, basically, is the personal opinions of a staff of seven people. That leaves the site feeling a bit one-sided, particularly due to omissions of facts that might not match CorpWatch's agenda. CorpWatch was nominated for a Webby Award this year, but looking at the site skeptically you have to wonder why.
ANTIGLOBO INFO. In its defense, CorpWatch does link to some interesting articles on other sites (that agree with the group's positions, of course) and other organizations, like Human Rights Watch and the International Chamber of Commerce. And CorpWatch has been credited with leaking a confidential audit of conditions in a Vietnamese factory that pushed Nike to improve conditions. The site's research section goes into great detail about how one can learn about a corporation or an industry.
What is the site good for? If you're looking for a great deal of information from the anticorporate globalization standpoint, or if you need some quick facts to support a debate in favor of human rights or environmental protection, CorpWatch.org is the place to go. Just don't expect to read anything "balanced."
And forget any hope of finding the type of watchdog we're all looking for these days: the kind that can spot the next Enron, WorldCom, Andersen, or Global Crossing before it hits. Merritt covers management and business schools from New York