American prosperity and the "race to the bottom:" why won't the media ask the right questions?

Author:Champlin, Dell P.

The problem of growing income inequality in the United States has become more serious over the past thirty years. A substantial number of books, scholarly papers, reports by think tanks, government data, and recently, special feature stories in national newspapers and magazines have been published on this issue. (1) Yet, for the most part, the main topics have been whether or not there is growing inequality and how much inequality is there. We have yet to move to the next, and in our view, more important phase: what are the effects of income inequality on the well-being of our economy and its participants, and what can be done about it?

In this paper we suggest that a major obstacle to moving the problem of inequality from the "discovery" phase to the "action" phase is the way inequality has been covered in the national media. Before inequality can be addressed, it must first be viewed as a serious, national problem that can and should be resolved. The media plays a unique and vital role in this regard. Indeed, the responsibility of the media to inform and educate the public on important issues has long been recognized as vital to a democracy (Croteau and Hoynes 2001; Fallows 1996). In practice, however, the performance of the media in pursuit of this public interest responsibility has fallen short of this ideal. The national media has been criticized in recent years for its overzealousness in the increased pursuit of tabloid stories, or, as in the case of the War in Iraq, a distinct lack of zealousness in the pursuit of the salient information about the links between the 9/11 terrorists and Iraq, or the extent of the development of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq. In the latter case, according to many observers, the media devoted an insufficient amount of time and effort to the "discovery" phase--an identification and analysis of the problem; and went too quickly and fervently to coverage of the calls for action. Al Gore's latest book, The Assault on Reason makes the argument that the media pay insufficient attention to factual reporting and analysis of important issues and, in so doing, undermine our ability to find the best solutions (Gore 2007). (2) In our view, media coverage of income inequality and the declining fortunes of the American middle class is a conspicuous example of the trends Gore describes. Despite a recent increase in reporting on this issue, the discussion has yet to move beyond a mere statement of the problem.

We begin with a brief survey of the debate over income inequality and the shrinking middle class in the United States as covered by the national media. In the second section, we review recent literature on the performance of the media in covering economic news. In the third section, we contrast three economic models of the raedia to assess its failure to explain the causes of growing wealth and income inequality as well as its failure to cover calls for redress of these problems. We conclude with a brief observation about the importance of the raedia in informing the electorate if we are to bring about progressive change.

Media Coverage of the Middle Class

The term "middle class" is commonly used by scholars, politicians, and reporters to discuss economic and cultural issues, but the latter two groups typically decline to offer clear definitions of what constitutes the middle class. Moreover, much confusion reigns in scholarly and policy circles about who resides in the middle class: as Steven Pressman recently noted, "theory does not and cannot tell us who counts as middle class" (Pressman 2007, 182). Given our focus in this paper on the media's coverage of the economic fortunes of the middle class, specifically, the growing income inequality evidenced in large part by the declining fortunes of the middle class, we will use Pressman's economic definition of the middle class: "being middle class means having a middle-class standard of living or having an income that is somewhere in the middle of the income distribution" (Pressman 2007, 183; see also Peterson 1994, 53 ff.; Zweig 2000, 20 ff.). (3)

Despite this lack of clarity about who is in the American middle class, the middle class has often been a popular media topic. Following World War II, news coverage of the U.S. economy often centered on the expanding and "newly 'affluent' middle class" (Yarrow 2006, 68). In the 1980s it was the decline of the middle class at least the blue collar middle class--that caught the media's attention. Popular books such as The Deindustrialization of America and America: What went Wrong documented the loss of highly paid manufacturing jobs and their replacement by lower paid service sector jobs with few benefits and less job security (Bluestone and Harrison 1982; Bartlett and Steele 1992). A 1983 article by Robert Kuttner in the Atlantic Monthly entitled, "The Declining Middle," in fact created a major media sensation and generated a serious discussion in the mainstream media on the loss of middle class incomes for thousands of workers. By the early 1990s, more books had been published on the topic. However, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the middle class crisis all but disappeared from the news. Even though the number of secure jobs with health and pension benefits continued to decline, the media trumpeted the economic boom and the "new" economy (Cohen 2000, 4). With the terror attacks of 2001 and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following so closely on the heels of the dotcom bust, the media seemed to lose interest in inequality.

Moreover, media interest in the problem of growing inequality and the middle class squeeze, even during the 1980s, has largely been confined to its salience as a political issue. The work of Donald Bartlett and James Steele, well-known investigative reporters formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer, focused on the deleterious role of Reagan era government policy in fomenting the decline of the middle class (Barlett and Steele 1992, 5 ff.). In 1992, candidate Clinton made the "middle class squeeze" a major issue in his campaign (Beatty 1994; Ifill 1992). In later campaigns, the focus of democratic candidates on health care was driven, in part, by its identification as a middle class issue. Conservative pundits and policymakers reacted to the literature on the middle class crisis and worsening income distribution by viewing it, with some justification, as an attack on conservative economic policies. Their approach for the past 25 years has been to deny the existence of a middle class crisis, to minimize the extent of growing inequality, and to accuse liberals of deliberately distorting statistics (Bartlett 2005; Foster-Bey 2004; Hassett 2006; Luskin 2005). For example, Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute, who writes frequently for the Wall Street Journal, concludes in a recent paper, "[a]side from stock option windfalls during the late-1990s stock-market boom, there is little evidence of a significant or sustained increase in the inequality of U.S. incomes, wages, consumption, or wealth over the past 20 years" (Reynolds 2007, 1; see also, Burtless 2007).

However, in the face of the continued and pronounced changes in income and class mobility in recent years, the release of new data such as the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, and the publication of a growing number of studies in academic journals and by public interest groups, the subject has recently resurfaced in major media outlets (Cf. Bucks, Kennickell, and Moore 2006). A quick search of newspaper indexes on inequality showed approximately twice as many articles published on this topic between 2002 and 2007 as compared to the 1997 to 2002 period. (4) To list a few of the more noteworthy articles, the New York Times published a series of articles on the problems of class in the United States in 2005 (Scott and Leonhardt 2005) and regularly reports on income inequality either in articles or in editorials (cf. Brooks 2006). (5) The Wall Street Journal includes coverage of growing income inequality and regularly covers the political aspects of inequality (Cf. Wessel 2005; Schuman 2007; Ip 2006).

An article by Blaine Harden in The Washington Post on June 22, 2006, reported on a Brookings Institution study of the decline in middle income neighborhoods in 100 metropolitan areas, and Steven Pearlstein produced two short articles on the problems of the middle class (March 8, 2006 and May 30, 2007). The Los Angeles Times routinely covers the issue of inequality, even though the articles are predominantly local in focus. Indeed, after the November 2006 election, the debate over the existence of the problem of income inequality finally appeared to be over when both President Bush and the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke, acknowledged the problem of worsening income distribution, and their statements were duly covered in the Wall Street Journal (Ip and McKinnon 2007; Wessel 2007).

However, in spite of the modest increase in coverage, the emphasis in most cases is limited to a simple reporting of the existence of growing inequality and middle class decline. Where causes are identified, the blame is typically attributed to factors such as rising globalization, insufficient educational attainment, or rapid technological change, factors that carry an air of inevitability and are presumed to be outside the control of policymakers. (6) In addition, media coverage of substantive studies of growing inequality and middle class struggles is balanced by the continuing effort of some conservatives to deny or minimize the problem. Conservative populist Lou Dobbs now includes a segment titled the "War on the Middle Class" on his nightly news program on CNN, where he typically assigns the blame to illegal immigrants or venal politicians (Dobbs 2006; Auletta 2006). In these circles, the increased attention to inequality and the middle class squeeze has not ushered in a notable move toward an analysis...

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