“The lowest unemployment rate in a half century,” an AP story in the New York Times announced on May 3, after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly jobs report.
“I’ll be running on the economy,” said President Donald Trump, regarding his plans for the 2020 presidential campaign. “And why wouldn’t he?” the AP story replied. The report argued the “sunny employment figures offered fresh evidence of a strong national economy.”
It was the same story across the rest of the mainstream media. For example, ABC News heralded a “booming jobs market,” CNN said “this is as good as it gets in the labor market,” USA Today concluded “it would be hard to ask for a more favorable report.” and NBC stated “for graduating [college] seniors, the timing could not be better.”
Yet, can anyone really say that this is a shining economy when nearly 80 percent of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck and that 4 in 10 workers don’t have the funds to cover a $400 emergency expense? (The mainstream media gave us those two stories as well, but they fail to connect the dots when reporting on the larger economy.)
In the wave of stories on the recent jobs report, much of the mainstream media, with its institutional eye on upscale readers and viewers, has again miserably failed to account for the condition of America’s vast working class majority. As I explain in my new book, No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class, since the late 1960s and early 1970s the mainstream news media have been targeting an upscale audience, essentially redlining off the working-class news audience. This might have made business sense to executives running increasingly consolidated news corporations traded on Wall Street – let’s go for the upscale demographics! – but in the long term it put blinders on the editorial eyes of much of the country’s journalism organizations.
Case in point: the New York Times. An analysis of the jobs report by one of its economics writers began by noting “For years it was the central question in an otherwise impressive recovery by the American job market: Why aren’t wages rising faster?”
The article said that “Economists proposed all sorts of theories to explain the mystery” of stagnant worker pay, and among the grab bag of theories is “falling rates of unionization.” But that was not the answer in this story, despite substantial evidence.
Instead, he concluded, the reason for the long recovery in wages is that the official government unemployment rate doesn’t account for other potential workers on the sidelines who might be willing to get back into the economy. Thus, wages can only go up when unemployment is extremely low and demand for workers puts upward pressure on wages. This is finally happening, the author said, almost 10 years after the recession. (Hooray for workers! And take note: these economic rules don’t seem to apply to executive-level compensation.)
Of course, in this view, workers have no agency. They are merely captives of the “natural” laws of economics. Never mind that the past four decades of low wages has been made possible by a concerted effort to put private and public labor unions asunder, cripple fair enforcement of labor law, deprive workers of earned overtime wages, push medical care expenses onto workers or eliminate medical insurance all together, and enable corporations to raid pension funds – all while Wall Street and corporate profits achieved ever-higher records.
More than four decades ago, the mainstream news media began to transform its audience and its stories. Labor unions and the working class shifted from normal, respected subjects in journalism’s coverage to abnormal, misunderstood, and mostly invisible subjects. This shift resulted in our current media landscape: labor reporters are nearly gone, economic reporters hail the record-breaking economy, and political reporters wonder why the working class seems so angry.
Christopher R. Martin is Professor of Digital Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa. He is also author of an award-winning book on how labor unions are covered in the news media, Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media (Cornell University Press).
Also of interest:
Listen to Jonathan Hall, in an interview with Professor Christopher R. Martin, here.