Mar 1 2000

Mainstream News Coverage Of Economics

Elite Bias Rules

A good place to begin a discussion of media bias on economics is with the price of wine. In 1997, this is how the New York Times wine columnist discussed the issue: “The $100-a-bottle wine, once an example of vulgar excess, is now an everyday occurrence.”

What’s now an everyday occurrence is celebratory and ignorant elitism in national media. Indeed, it is the overriding bias in economics coverage — whether the news outlet leans left or right on social issues like gays, guns or abortion. This elite worldview leads to a conservative, pro-corporate slant on issues from trade to wages to Social Security.

For the record, 96 percent of California wines in 1998 retailed for $14 or less per bottle; 81 percent sold for under $7. Let’s move from the price of wine to what a Newsweek cover in July 1999 called “The Whine of ’99: Everyone’s Getting Rich But Me!” It’s a variant on Money magazine’s less whiny May cover: “Everyone’s Getting Rich!”

Echoing Newsweek, CNN‘s June 30th “Talkback Live” began this way: “Behind the mind-boggling wealth of Bill Gates, there are more billionaires and millionaires than ever before, and it might seem as if everyone you know is in on the action.”

Newsweek‘s cover story focuses on the frustration of those who believe that everyone around them is getting rich. Only alert readers who can concentrate amid a deafening drumbeat would notice that when Newsweek says “everyone’s getting rich,” it has in mind a tiny subset of Americans: “Almost half of all people who earn $50,000 or more say they know someone who’s become rich.” Reality check: Newsweek‘s poll found that seven in ten people had family incomes below $50,000.

Like so much of the happy hype that masquerades as journalism about economics, the Newsweek piece skips breezily over reality: “The income gap remains a thorny problem, but wealth is increasingly spread out as businesses give workers more of a stake. And as everybody starts to ponder his own business plan, that picks up the pace of innovation.”

Reality check: Far from being “increasingly spread out,” wealth in the United States is increasingly concentrated. According to New York University economics professor Edward Wolff, most American households have a lower net worth than they did in 1983, when stocks began to climb. The top 1 percent of U.S. households has more wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined and more than 40 percent of total wealth — doubling the share they had in 1977.

Myths proliferate in mainstream media that tend to see the economy from the perch of corporate managers and investors and not from the perspective of the vast majority of Americans whose income comes basically from wages or salary.

The elevated roost explains why daily newspapers have business pages but not labor or workplace pages. It explains (along with corporate sponsorship and ownership) why national television, including PBS, offers dozens of business and investor programs but not one regular show on labor or consumer rights. It explains why economics coverage is so dominated by pro-corporate sources; FAIR’s 40-month study of Nightline in the late 1980s found that for every union official discussing economics there were seven business representatives.

It explains the exalted status of ABC‘s John Stossel — a reporter who unabashedly advocates business deregulation on air and in speeches to Capitol Hill and industry lobby groups (“I’m delighted to pitch the miracle of markets and the evils of regulation every chance I get,” Stossel told USA Today in 1995.) He had been a consumer reporter, but said after a 1996 speech to The Federalist Society: “I got sick of it. I also now make so much money I just lost interest in saving a buck on a can of peas.”

An elite perch explains how, during the Teamsters strike against UPS, columnists Steven and Cokie Roberts could warn against stronger unions by arguing that “a $20-an-hour job doesn’t do any worker any good if the company loses business or closes down.” Let’s do the numbers, as they say on “public” radio: A $20-an-hour UPS driver earns in a year $40,000 — roughly what Steve and Cokie were paid for lecturing in 1994 to a Chicago bank.

A topdown worldview explains how ABC anchor Diane Sawyer, in a lurid segment on welfare fraud, could confront a single mom of a four-year-old (“people say you shouldn’t have children if you can’t support them”) who secretly worked two part-time jobs to earn — with her welfare checks — a grand total of $16,700. Sawyer earns about that much every day from ABC.

In the right-wing’s caricature, the Washington press corps is composed of corporate-bashing, big-government liberals. This portrait is debunked by a survey of 141 journalists — primarily from the most influential outlets — conducted for FAIR in 1998 by Virginia Commonwealth professor David Croteau. Comparing journalists’ responses with public opinion as measured by mainstream polls, Croteau found journalists to be more conservative than the general public on many key economic issues.

As for corporate-bashing, journalists were asked: Do “a few large corporations” have “too much power?” Somewhat split on the issue, 57 percent of the journalists answered yes; 43 percent answered no. By contrast, the general public is one-sided on the question, with 77 percent (versus 18 percent) saying yes in a 1995 TimesMirror poll. If national journalists are business-bashers, soccer moms are veritable communists.

Should Washington “guarantee medical care for all people who don’t have health insurance?” Journalists were fairly divided (43 percent pro, 35 percent con), while the public supports a federal guarantee of health insurance by 2 to 1 — 64 to 29 percent in a 1996 New York Times poll.

What about “free trade”? While the public is generally more negative than positive in assessing the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement, journalists are overwhelming fans of NAFTA (65 to 8 percent in the survey). On granting the president “fast-track” authority to negotiate new trade deals, the public is as widely opposed (67 percent) as journalists are supportive (71 percent).

Raise taxes on the wealthy? That’s hugely popular with the general public; not so popular with the surveyed journalists — most of whom declared annual household incomes above $100,000, with almost a third declaring household incomes above 150,000. Reality check: The median household income in the U.S. is about $38,000.

Far from a leftist cabal, the Washington press corps reveals itself in the Croteau survey to be a conservative elite, out of step with average Americans. It seems that journalists prospering at prestige jobs in big corporations aren’t overly worried about health coverage or the impact of overseas sweatshops on U.S. jobs and wages.

My point is not that well-paid journalists with right-of-center economic views can’t cover the economy fairly or accurately. They can, but only if their coverage acknowledges that economic events affect different people and groups differently. And only if they commit to balancing sources and experts — especially on economic issues where their personal biases are in accord with the monied interests that own or sponsor the news. That takes courage.

To cite just two issues where balance is in short supply:

“FREE TRADE”: From NAFTA to the World Trade Organization, cheerleading often drowns out reporting. Here’s the lead of a front-page New York Times backgrounder on the treaty that gave birth to the WTO: “Free trade means growth. Free trade means growth. Free trade means growth. Just say it 50 more times and all doubts will melt away.” The article — headlined “How Free Trade Prompts Growth: A Primer” — wasn’t satire; only sources lauding “free trade” were quoted. Months earlier, Times management had published an unprecedented 7-page advertorial section promoting passage of NAFTA; opposition, even in paid ads, was excluded.

Some cheerleading is nonsensical: CNN “leftist” Michael Kinsley was so fervently pro-NAFTA that he once argued that U.S.-owned plants in Mexico pay workers in dollars, and that “you can only spend them in the United States.”

Sourcing on this issue is no more balanced than the U.S. trade deficit. A FAIR study of reporting on NAFTA (April-July 1993) in the New York Times and Washington Post found that of 201 quoted sources, NAFTA supporters outnumbered critics by more than three to one. Not one source represented a labor union; only six represented environmental groups. (Ironically, an August 1993 Times article claimed that labor and environmentalists “dominate the debate.”)

SOCIAL SECURITY: Like trade, a media mantra is repeated unchallenged: Without big reforms (like benefit cuts), Social Security is going broke. Say it 50 times and doubts melt away.

FAIR’s 13-month study of nightly network news reporting on Social Security in 1998-99 found not a debate, but a drumbeat: The system is going broke (not one dissenter) and can be fixed by turning it at least partly over to Wall Street (almost no dissenters). Analysts from corporate-oriented think tanks and Wall Street — which will profit from privatization — were often quoted; few seniors advocates, and no one from labor, were heard.

Though rarely quoted in mass media, some experts don’t see a crisis. They note that the Social Security trustees’ projection of a deficit in the year 2034 is based on a strikingly pessimistic average annual growth rate of 1.4 percent over the next 75 years. That’s half the average 3 percent annual growth rate of the last 75 years, which includes the Great Depression. With modest growth, say dissenters, Social Security will be solvent well after most Baby Boomers bite the dust.

Today in the media, triumphalism has replaced debate about “our booming economy.” Reality check: 44 million Americans have no health insurance and nearly one in five kids still live in poverty. Because the minimum wage has fallen in value, 15 percent of workers receive a wage that would have been illegal in the late 1960s. For the typical worker, real hourly wages were lower in 1998 than in 1973.

For these millions of Americans, a $100 bottle of wine is hardly an everyday occurrence.

A version of this appeared in Brill’s Content (3/00).