May
01
1996

We Feel Your Pain

Media Tell Workers to Learn to Live With Layoffs

"As corporate America looks beyond downsizing," began an item in March 19's Wall Street Journal, "executives search for smart ways to handle virtual offices, telecommuting and team environments." As part of "corporate America," corporate-owned media also appear interested in "looking beyond" mass layoffs--but certainly not in challenging them.

It's true that coverage like the New York Times' special series, "The Downsizing of America" (3/3-9/96), was a welcome exception to the major media's neglect of the crisis of widespread job loss and insecurity. But although those reports conveyed some of the painful effects of corporate layoffs on families and communities, they failed to widen the debate on the causes of--or solutions for--the problems they described.

The Times' widely acclaimed seven-part series was limited by its anecdotal approach, reflected in the first installment's invitation (3/3/96) to "peek into the living rooms of America." It was refreshing to hear workers describing their own lives and choices, but this "human interest" focus tended to underscore the conservative fiction that a person's economic circumstances are mostly a matter of individual effort. This pervasive theme was stated at one point (3/9/96) as "the lesson, heard again and again, that while government and business can do some things, in the end workers have little to fall back on but themselves."

There's even a repeated implication that a little hardship is just what some folks need. Chase Manhattan Bank, eliminating 16 percent of its jobs over three years, was said (3/4/96) to be replacing a "paternalistic organization" with one that will "assist the employee by sharpening skills." And it's not clear what readers were to make of, for example, one woman's comment (3/4/96) about her lost sense of job security: "It's like growing up. There's no more Santa Claus."

If worker "self-reliance" was celebrated, collective action was correspondingly played down. The March 6 close-up on Dayton, Ohio, talked about civic groups and the need for the community to "pull together," but no one argued seriously for a sustained, organized response by workers to economic inequity. Unions were mentioned only a handful of times in the entire series.

Wall Street Is Who?

But while workers were discouraged from blaming anyone but themselves (or their unsharpened "skills") for their situation--urged to become, as New York Times columnist William Safire put it (3/19/96), "individual survivalists"-- the series didn't directly confront the conscious, self-interested decisions of corporate managers and investors that result in layoffs. Reporters resorted instead to vague, passive-voice descriptions of management behavior, as when the paper explained (3/3/96) that "business has been thrust into a cycle where it is keener about pleasing investors than workers."

Any notion that some people might actually benefit from the economic insecurity the series depicts is repeatedly skirted--or subtly undermined, as when reporters Louis Uchitelle and N.R. Kleinfield (3/3/96) listed "corporations" and "capitalism itself" among the (presumably irrational) targets of workers' "floating anger," along with "blacks," "welfare recipients" and "computers."

Ultimately, "Downsizing of America" wants to have it both ways, to acknowledge and obscure class differences. So the first report in the series points boldly to the "stern insistence of Wall Street on elevating profits even if it means casting off people." Then the last installment asks, "But who is Wall Street?" and answers, "Increasingly, it us."

"Wall Street is Main Street" is mainstream media's new conventional wisdom, suggesting that since many Americans now own a few stocks or mutual funds, corporate profit rates are now everyone's first priority. Indeed, the Times explained (3/9/96), "mutual fund managers and pension fund managers are often the ones who squeeze companies the hardest." Workers, it turns out, are downsizing themselves.

Only a minority of Americans, of course, own any stocks or bonds; most workers don't even have a pension plan. As always, the vast majority depend on their salaries rather than on any investment income to pay their bills (Extra!, 9-10/94).

Wounded Winners

In a March 3 sidebar on entertainment media, the Times' Caryn James pointed out that, while TV sitcoms, for instance, are addressing issues of joblessness, "what's revealing is that no one ends up on the street." "Downsizing of America," though not without dark moments, didn't talk much about such severe hardship either.

Although the introductory article (3/3/96) noted that in the current round of layoffs, "those at the lower end of the economic ladder are slipping even further," most of the series' focus was on the people described at one point (3/7/96) as "winners who feel wounded."

There is some interest in accounts of the lost self-esteem of "tossed-aside executives"--particularly since, as reporters note, their feelings of resentment and frustration directly affect their political beliefs and voting patterns. But these are people, unlike many of the unemployed, for whom the effects of job loss are primarily psychological--at least, that's the implication of headlines like "More than Money, They Miss the Pride a Good Job Brought." The answer, these stories suggest, is not political change, but personal attitude adjustment.

Business as Usual

Despite its limitations, "Downsizing of America" did raise some provocative points. But these are contradicted and undercut by the daily drumbeat of New York Times reporting.

For instance, the March 5 story described how frightening and "degrading" an out-of-work machinist found the "constant worry" of living without health insurance. But those who remember the health care reform debate know that the New York Times was especially dismissive of comprehensive coverage plans like single-payer, and generally excluded their proponents from the discussion (Extra!, 7-8/93).

The series' last installment, devoted to "solutions" to downsizing, was most galling in this regard; it referred to organizations and perspectives that have rarely attracted the attention of the so-called "paper of record." Even the Tennessee-based group cited as the sole concrete example of a successful job-training program (3/9/96) has never been the subject of a single Times story.

Likewise, comments from the Economic Policy Institute and The American Prospect magazine marked relatively rare appearances of such progressive sources in the New York Times' pages. If such views represent possible answers to a pressing economic crisis, why aren't they included in the paper's day-to-day economic analysis? A few stray quotes in an occasional series are no substitute for a regular place in the debate. And more radical proposals--like shortening the work week, or restricting the ability of the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates--were simply not on the Times' radar.

In any event, the Times soon made it evident that "Downsizing of America" didn't signal a substantive departure from its economic line. In the lead story in the March 17 "Week in Review," titled "It's a Slow Growth Economy, Stupid," reporter Uchitelle stated matter-of-factly that economic growth "that would raise living standards and make layoffs less frequent" is simply "not possible."

Rather than discuss what changes could be made to make such growth possible, or, assuming its impossibility, how to alleviate existing poverty and inequality, the article concluded that the real issue is how to rid ourselves of unrealistic expectations, how to scale back hope.

Hot Talk, No Walk

A similar reluctance to expand the debate on economic assumptions and solutions marked a Feb. 26 Newsweek feature with the sensationalistic title "Corporate Killers." Though Newsweek chose hot language for the headlines, the article itself noted several examples of corporate "good guys," and included a long sidebar consisting of former Scott Paper CEO Al Dunlap's self-serving explanation for cutting 11,000 jobs in a profitable year. ("The job of industry is to become competitive--not to be a social experiment," he argued, though CEOs do have an obligation "to communicate with workers and prepare them for the inevitable.")

What's more, that story was followed by a patronizing lecture from Newsweek's downsizing cheerleader, columnist Robert J. Samuelson. Samuelson said he wishes people would quit "wailing about job loss" and accused politicians who talk about the subject of "pandering to Americans' every anxiety."

Despite their timidity in fundamentally questioning corporate values, "Downsizing of America" and "Corporate Killers" still provoked a backlash from the business elite. In widely reported comments, Chrysler CEO Robert Eaton charged that articles like these represent "the demonizing of corporate America" and could lead to "class warfare."

Corporate-owned media demonizing corporations? Hardly. What these superficially critical stories really make clear is that, though reporters may tug heartstrings from time to time over workers' economic troubles, there's little room in mainstream debate for progressive ideas on what to do about them.

Labor Media Watch is a joint project of FAIR and the Labor Resource Center at Queens College, CUNY.

SIDEBAR:

The Job Plague

USA Today (3/11/96) described the reported creation of 750,000 jobs in terms that might be reserved for a flood or a swarm of locusts. "Tough Times" was the caption on a photo showing a harried-looking Wall Street trader.

The devastating costs of new jobs were explained in an accompanying article by a "market strategist" who "worries that the new jobs mean there is strong demand for workers, and that will spur wage inflation." (Wage "inflation" means, of course, higher wages.) Investor profits won't rise then because "companies will have to use their money to pay and keep workers instead of letting it flow to the bottom line as earnings." That nasty scenario, we're told, is a "recipe for disaster for the stock and bond markets."

But USA Today didn't want to leave its readers totally depressed at the thought of thousands of newly employed people: Despite the "traumatic jolt," the article counsels us that "no one really knows what's in store [and] most evidence still points to a tepid economy." Uh--hooray?

--J.J.