Jan 1 2001

Media See the Poor as Aggressors in ‘Class War’

Survey finds bottom-up references overwhelm top-down

“In a time of peace and prosperity, Al Gore is betting that Americans want to go to war.”

That was the lead of a Los Angeles Times article by political reporter Ronald Brownstein (8/18/00) the day after Al Gore’s speech to the Democratic Convention in August. Brownstein was referring to Gore’s pledge to take the side of working families against “powerful forces and powerful interests.” By using the word “war,” Brownstein was echoing the Bush campaign’s denunciation of the Gore speech as “class warfare.”

According to the Nexis media database, in the months since the convention speech, Al Gore’s name has appeared in more than 1,100 stories alongside references to class warfare. Class war terminology has long been a media staple, but a FAIR study of how it is applied shows that top U.S. media outlets see it much more often waged from the bottom than from the top.

We looked at every mention of the terms “class war,” “class warfare” and “class warrior” by nine top U.S. media outlets for the five-and-a-half-year period from January 1995 through July 2000, stopping just before Al Gore’s August convention speech. A handful of references with a non-socioeconomic context—such as the “class warfare” between the New York Knicks and L.A. Lakers—were omitted. The 591 instances remaining were seven times more likely to describe bottom-up actions—language or policies perceived as favoring the less powerful—as they were to describe top-down actions, or actions perceived to favor the powerful.

While each of the outlets we studied showed a strong bias toward using bottom-up class war terminology, there was some variation from outlet to outlet. On CBS Evening News, the least unbalanced, mentions of bottom-up class war occurred 4.5 times as often as top-down. ABC World News Tonight was the least balanced, with class-war language describing bottom-up situations in all 12 cases where ABC employed the terms.

The extent of the bias did not vary substantially when we looked at “class war” references in quotes from sources, in reporter’s own descriptions, in editorials or in commentaries. While the sources selected by journalists referred to bottom-up warfare nine times more often than top-down, even in reporters’ supposedly objective voice, the ratio was almost 7 to 1. Both editorial and commentary references ran between 5 and 6 to 1.

Using terms suggesting belligerence on the part of one class toward another may be useful in describing economic and political struggles, but the lopsided branding of less powerful interests as warlike, while using gentler terms to describe the actions and rhetoric of the powerful, raises a question of balance.

When Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott commented in July, “I don’t think we need more, you know, labor unions in America,” or in 1996 when House Majority Whip Tom Delay said, “Organized labor is part of the extremist, left-wing clique that is destroying this country,” no suggestion was made (according to Nexis) that either man was waging class war, though many do see the two as class warriors of the top-down variety (New York Times, 7/1/00; Newsday, 8/18/00).

According to Robert Kuttner, editor of the American Prospect (10/23/00), “The real class warfare in America today is top-down.” Many Americans agree with him, seeing top-down class warfare in such policies as welfare reform, capital punishment and global trade legislation, just to name a few. Unfortunately for U.S. media consumers, from the standpoint of most mainstream journalists and the sources they quote, top-down class warfare hardly exists—a fact that tells you more about the media than it does about American society.

Research: Joshua Pollack