During an ABC Nightline interview on May 21, 2003, host Ted Koppel suggested that his guest was engaging in “class warfare” by arguing that the wealthy should pay increased taxes. While the exchange was not unusual—Koppel’s use of the term “class war” to characterize bottom-up or populist economic rhetoric is the norm—what was unusual was that his guest was the second-richest man in the world, Warren Buffett. The interview is worth remembering primarily for Buffett’s commonsense response: “Well, I’ll tell you, if it’s class warfare, my class is winning.”
The brief comment serves as one of the very few prominent admissions that the class war can go both ways: top-down as well as bottom-up. And the current degree of economic inequality in the United States backs up Buffett’s claim. In his 2007 book Categorically Unequal, Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey showed that of all advanced industrial nations, the U.S. ranks highest in inequality of both income and wealth distribution. Massey explained (Media Matters, 8/27/07):
These actions—along with many other policies that favor the wealthy—clearly pit the well-being of one economic class against another, and yet the media rarely refer to them as “class warfare.” Instead, a new FAIR survey shows that within top national media outlets, “class warfare” terminology is almost exclusively employed to characterize as belligerent actions taken on behalf of the non-rich. The result is a biased national discourse that portrays “class war” as an ongoing persecution of the wealthy at the hands of the poor and working class and their populist leaders.
FAIR’s study examined every use of the terms “class war,” “class warfare” and “class warrior” by the New York Times, Washington Times, Fox News and CNN over a nine-month period (9/1/08-5/31/09). In 71 percent of the instances where the term was used, there was a clear indication as to what types of actions “class war” was meant to describe. In the remaining 29 percent, the phrase was used more ambiguously, with no reference to specific instances or policies.
When there was a clear direction implied, the study shows a striking bias in the use of the “class warfare” label: In all outlets combined, the phrase was almost 18 times more likely to describe bottom-up action—rhetoric or policy decisions perceived as benefiting the poor or lower classes—than it was to describe top-down action (90 percent vs. 5 percent of occurrences).
One might expect any conflict termed a “war” to be covered as a two-way street, but the outlets only did so in 5 percent of the cases where the term was employed. Going by media coverage, it is not so much a class war as it is a class massacre, with a revolutionary rabble siphoning wealth downward (never mind how the wealth got up there in the first place).
The bias held across the outlets, but fell into two distinct groups: significantly unbalanced and completely unbalanced. At the New York Times, descriptions of “class warfare” as bottom-up outnumbered top-down descriptions 6-to-1, while at CNN the imbalance was 8-to-1.
The right-wing outlets in our sample, Fox and the Washington Times, never presented “class warfare” as anything other than action taken on behalf of the poor or against the wealthy. Fox was far more vehement in its lopsidedness, however, managing to present this version 40 times, while the Washington Times employed it in 14 articles.
Fox’s unbalanced numbers were dramatically bolstered by commentators Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, whose heavily promoted shows were by far the frontrunners regarding quantity of “class warfare” rhetoric. Together, the two shows accounted for half of Fox’s total bottom-up references.
All outlets surveyed were most likely to feature accusations of bottom-up “class warfare” in quotes from sources (54 percent of such references) or in commentators’ opinion (35 percent), with just 11 percent of such references being made in a news reporter’s own voice.
Bottom-up “class warfare” references suggest that lower economic classes are openly hostile and irrational, seeking the destruction of the rich even to the ruin of the nation. The upper class is at such great risk, it seems, that they are reminded in a New York Times op-ed (3/25/09): “The system works badly if the poor, always a majority, feel the rich are getting a good deal unfairly. But if the rich show moderation, class warfare is less of a threat to economic development.” In other words, the rich must hide their wealth not only for their own sake, but for the sake of the nation’s overall economy, which can be jeopardized by an acquisitive majority.
The Washington Times (10/9/08) went so far as to suggest that the economic system itself is unfairly biased against the rich, and that average Americans need to correct the injustice; after all,
Fox News host Glenn Beck (3/3/09) issued the American lower class a similarly stern warning: “You don’t want to go on class warfare because…when you go global, the poorest person in America is still some of the wealthiest 2 percent in the world. We are the rich. We’re the ones that the rest of the world is going to come and take our wealth.” (Actually, the richest 10 percent of individuals in the world have incomes greater than $25,000 a year—which is obviously much more than the “poorest person in America” makes, given that a minimum wage job pays $15,000 a year.)
Beck seemed to fear that the U.S. poor would get a taste of the persecution that comes with being a millionaire; as Beck’s colleague Sean Hannity reminded us (Fox, 3/12/09), “It may not mean a lot to people that like class warfare, but there’s 27 percent fewer millionaires now in America than there was last year.”
News coverage during this time period was not devoid of critical references to top-down action and policies. On the contrary, there was substantial discussion of the bank bailouts as a policy which unfairly aided the rich at the expense of the rest. However, such coverage rarely employed “class warfare” rhetoric. Only three articles could be found in the study period that referred to bank bailouts as top-down “class warfare.”
Top-down action and sentiment also increased recently as a response to the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), legislation aimed at easing the process of workplace unionization. Anti-labor sentiments are often boldly class-conscious, such as those of Lee Scott, the former CEO of Wal-Mart, who declared that “we like driving the car, and we’re not going to give the steering wheel to anybody,” or Bernard Marcus, former CEO of Home Depot, who said of the anti-unionization movement, “If a retailer has not gotten involved with this, if he has not spent money on this… he should be shot” (Wall Street Journal, 11/19/08). However, few such comments are characterized as “class warfare” by the media in the manner progressive comments often are.
It’s a long-standing trend: In a study of nine top media outlets from January 1995 through July 2000, Extra! (1-2/01) found that references to “class war” were seven times more likely to describe bottom-up than top-down actions. When Diane Sawyer, in a PrimeTime Live interview with a group of teenage mothers, referred to beneficiaries of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program as “public enemy No. 1” (ABC, 2/16/95; Extra!, 5-6/95), or when then-House Majority Whip Tom Delay said, “Organized labor is part of the extremist, left-wing clique that is destroying this country” (Newsday, 8/18/00), little suggestion was made in the media that either was waging “class war,” despite their robust rhetoric and top-down policy advocacy.
Using “class warfare” rhetoric to describe actions in favor of the poor and lower class, while using less pejorative language to describe top-down actions, raises more than a question of balance; that the “class war” is reported as waged nearly exclusively from the bottom up is an indication of corporate media’s own place in the economic struggle.