By Tim Francisco
Faculty Affiliate at the Center for Working-Class Studies
In a March 10 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker set the record straight on why he is fighting public unions, and in so doing he evoked a frame that could easily have appeared in any of the many “recession” stories that have proliferated in media over the past few years:
For example, my brother works as a banquet manager at a hotel and occasionally works as a bartender. My sister-in-law works at a department store. They have two beautiful kids. They are a typical middle-class Wisconsin family. At the start of this debate, David reminded me that he pays nearly $800 per month for his family’s health-insurance premium and a modest 401(k) contribution. He said most workers in Wisconsin would love a deal like the one we are proposing.
The example is compelling, and like the countless other similar accounts, it invites readers to ask “Why should ‘they’ have what I don’t have?”
Walker’s “frame” parallels much of the coverage of workers’ issues that, in an earlier post, I criticized for failing to address the complexities and the realities behind the eye-catching and heart-tugging “working class” frames like his. For example, rather than simply accepting as unassailable inevitability the plight of Walker’s brother, why aren’t we asking why his health-care premiums are so high, or why the important work that he and his wife do to support their family is so undervalued at a time when corporate profits and worker productivity are at all-time highs?
Imagine the impact of a story that, after describing the plight of Walker’s sibling, actually examined the profit margin of the hotel and department store that employ the couple to let readers discern whether or not the couple is being asked to “sacrifice” because their employers are exploiting the recession to squeeze more out of employees.
This lack of information is equally troubling in the portrayal of public school teachers, which often consists of a comparison between the “perks” of the teacher, with those of the private sector. Missing from these stories is the harsh reality that based on the cost of earning and maintaining their credentials, public school teachers are one of the lowest paid groups, according to a CBS Money Watch study.
Moreover, many media too often repeat the easy opposition between taxpayers and public workers, as in a recent Christian Science Monitor piece that sports the headline, “Who Will Win the Battle Between Teachers and Taxpayers?” Too few note that public workers are taxpayers as well, and in many cities, such as Youngstown, these workers pay much of tax burden that keeps city services functioning.
In a smart analysis for tax.com, “Really Bad Reporting in Wisconsin: Who Contributes to Public Workers Pensions?” Pulitzer Prize Winning reporter David Cay Johnston explains that public pensions are actually deferred compensation, and he faults “pack” journalists for accepting as gospel the Scott Walker version, without seeking to understand how pension systems actually work.
Johnston’s thoughtful piece reveals the dangers of reporting that, in the rush to get the story out, fails to fully tell the entire story, to dig for the facts. Subscribing to an easy objectivity that equates “balance” with the transcription of spin from both sides of an issue, reporting on the assault on unions has failed to truly inform. I’m reminded here of the late great Molly Ivins, who famously observed that
The very notion that on any given story all you have to do is report what both sides say and you’ve done a fine job of objective journalism debilitates the press…The smug complacency of much of the press—I have heard many an editor say, “Well, we’re being attacked by both sides so we must be right”—stems from the curious notion that if you get a quote from someone on both sides, preferably in an official position, you’ve done the job. In the first place, most stories aren’t two-sided, they’re 17-sided at least. In the second place, it’s of no help to either the readers or the truth to quote one side saying, “Cat,” and the other side saying “Dog,” while the truth is there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes. Getting up off your duff and going to find out for yourself is still the most useful thing a reporter can do.
Ivins’s point was that, in an age of instant news gratification, reporters often are lulled into becoming merely stenographers, recording two sides of every argument, even when the facts clearly prove one side wrong. Too often reporters shy away from this duty because they have been conditioned to avoid what might appear as advocacy journalism at all costs, but in shying away from the duty of fully reporting and even disputing shaky facts cloaked in political hyperbole, we abdicate the all important “watchdog” function of the press.
And the perils of neutering the watchdog press, are today more dubious than ever. Last week, Sherry Linkon and John Russo argued that a coalition is needed to combat the multi-pronged assault on unions and public employees:
We need to build a movement that crosses boundaries – between public- and private-sector unions, the traditional working class of industrial, blue-collar workers and the new working class of retail and service workers, between the working class and the middle class, cities and suburbs, and among diverse types of organizations.
The need for this type of collaboration is clear, but the challenges of achieving it in the current media moment are enormous, and will require much more substantive and thoughtful reporting than has been dominating mainstream coverage to date.
Tim Francisco is an assistant professor of English at Youngstown State University, where he also teaches journalism.
Posted April 14, 2011 at 12:00 pm, in From Center for Working-Class Studies