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.