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The Media and Labor

November 22, 2007

By Norman Solomon

Good News for Americans — Your Wages Are Flat!

The economic coverage was fairly typical on a recent broadcast of the radio program “Day to Day,” airing nationwide from NPR News.

“There’s actually some good news out today about the American economy,” host Madeleine Brand announced. Then she introduced a reporter from the widely heard “Marketplace” show, Jill Barshay, who proceeded to offer the type of explanation that’s all too common in media accounts of economic trends.

“Well, just to be clear, we’re talking about worker productivity, which is how much stuff we make every hour,” Barshay replied. “And the Labor Department reported this morning that the hourly output per worker increased 4.9 percent in the third quarter. That’s the biggest jump in labor productivity we’ve seen since 2003. Another part of the report also says that labor costs fell a bit, so we’ve got employees being more productive and costing companies less. And this is important because it shows that the economy might be able to grow without generating inflation.”

Let’s unpack that narrative. From the outset, wages are described only as “labor costs” — which fell, “so we’ve got employees being more productive and costing companies less.”

With that kind of setup near the top of a story, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to depicting higher income for workers as a threat to the country’s economic well-being.

“Productivity is the economy’s best defense against inflation and recession,” the reporter went on, “and that’s because wages are the most important cost to companies, and most of our wages do go up every year, even if it’s just a little cost of living adjustment.”

And Barshay added: “So if we’re producing the same amount of stuff every year, then companies have a choice. They either can pass on these wage costs in the form of higher prices on the products we buy, or they take a hit to their profits. So if we’re producing more stuff, if we’re being more productive like we have in this past quarter, then we don’t have to worry so much about higher consumer prices or falling corporate profits.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t worry much about “falling profits.” Few working people do. What we worry about is job insecurity, lousy working conditions, unpaid hours, evaporating pensions, and healthcare coverage that’s either woefully inadequate or nonexistent.

But during that Nov. 7 news segment on “Day to Day,” a key theme was the menace of “falling corporate profits.”

The idea that all of us should yearn for high corporate profits is convenient for corporate underwriters and advertisers. But key questions go unasked. Such as: Don’t outsized corporate profits actually represent ripoffs of workers and consumers alike — in effect, underpricing our time and overpricing our purchases?

Such questions, however, are not often asked in mass media. Instead, we keep hearing and seeing coverage about the need to contain the “costs” of paying employees — a frame of reference that portrays an upsurge in worker compensation as a threat to economic well-being rather than an enhancement of it.

As usual, the validity of the reportage hinges on where you sit. If you’re a business owner or major investor, then you may not want to see bigger checks going into pay envelopes. But relatively few of us are company owners or big investors. Most of us depend on income from our own labor.

An insidious aspect of such frequent stories, equating the health of “the economy” with the ability of corporations to hold down payroll “expenses,” is that they discount the importance of the most common human experiences. Routinely, in medialand, people who work for a living are consigned to the peripheral vision of news accounts, while economically powerful individuals and institutions keep occupying the center stage.

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The Media and Class Warfare

A few decades ago, upwards of one-third of the American workforce was unionized. Now the figure is down around 10 percent. And news media are central to the downward spiral.

As unions wither, the journalistic establishment has a rationale for giving them less ink and air time. As the media coverage diminishes, fewer Americans find much reason to believe that unions are relevant to their working lives.

But the media problem for labor goes far beyond the fading of unions from newsprint, television and radio. Media outlets aren’t just giving short shrift to organized labor. The avoidance extends to unorganized labor, too.

So often, when issues of workplaces and livelihoods appear in the news, they’re framed in terms of employer plights. The frequent emphasis is on the prospects and perils of companies that must compete.

Well, sure, firms need to compete. And working people need to feed and clothe and house themselves and their families. And workers hope to provide adequate medical care.

The issue of health insurance is a political talking-point for many candidates these days. But meanwhile, unionized workers are finding themselves in a weakened position when they try to retain whatever medical coverage they may have. And non-unionized workers often have little or none.

With all the media discussion of corporate bottom-line difficulties, the human element routinely gets lost in the shuffle. In day-to-day business news and in general reporting, the lives of people on the line are apt to be rendered as abstractions. Or they simply go unmentioned.

The topic of war in Iraq is huge in the media. I can’t say much for the quality of that coverage, but at least it keeps reporting that a military war is happening overseas. But what about the economic war that’s happening at home?

Phrases like “class war” have been discredited in American news media — tarred as too blunt, too combative, too rhetorical. But, call it what you will, the clash of economic interests is with us always.

Waged from the top down, class war is a triumphant activity — and part of the success involves the framing and avoidance of certain unpleasant realities via corporate-owned media outlets. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a social scientist to grasp that multibillion-dollar companies are not going to own, or advertise with, media firms that challenge the power of multibillion-dollar companies.

One of the dominant yet little-remarked-upon shifts in the media landscape over the past couple of decades has been the enormous upsurge in business news as general news. A result is that tens of millions of low-income people are seeing constant news stories about challenges and opportunities for well-to-do investors.

The reverse, of course, is not the case. The very affluent of our society don’t often pick up a newspaper or tune in the evening news and encounter waves of stories and commentaries about the dire straits of America’s poor people and what it’s like to be one of them. And it’s even more rare to see coverage of ways that a few people grow obscenely wealthy as a direct result of the further impoverishment of the many.

“Class war”? The nation’s most powerful editors cringe at the phrase. But every day, millions of Americans are painfully aware that — by any other name — class warfare is going on, and they’re losing.

Norman Solomon’s latest book is “Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State.” For more information, go to: www.MadeLoveGotWar.com

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