We rarely see those who labor

Media: Newspapers and broadcasters favor corporate views, ignoring those of people who do America's work.

August 22, 1999|By Matt Witt

AS THE LABOR DAY weekend approaches, the news media will be filled with advertisements for back-to-school sales, reports on holiday traffic deaths and recipes for backyard barbecues.

What we don't see much is reporting on the lives of people who labor in the nation's offices, factories and service industries. There isn't much coverage of how jobs are changing in America, or of the growing gap in wealth between those who do the work and those who profit from it.

Issues of work and class are largely invisible in the American media, not just on Labor Day but year-round. Rarely do we see stories exploring important questions facing working families. For example:

* Why is the average entry-level wage at least one-fifth lower than it was 20 years ago, with starting pay declining even for new college graduates?

* What corporate strategies are leading to the shift to "contingent" labor -- the part-time, temporary or subcontracted jobs that make up 30 percent of the work force?

* What has forced the average married couple to work 326 more hours per year than 20 years ago to maintain its buying power?

* With polls showing that at least 30 million American workers who don't have a union would like to form one, what keeps them from doing so? Could it be anti-union pressure from supervisors? Such pressure occurs in 91 percent of cases in which employees try to form a union, according to a Cornell University study.

Nurses facing staffing cuts that don't leave them enough time for patient care, teachers who are left out of education-reform decisions, service workers who are paid poverty wages without health benefits -- all rarely appear in media coverage.

A study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal media-watchdog group, found that the evening news programs of CBS, ABC and NBC recently devoted only 2 percent of their total air time to workers' issues, including child care, the minimum wage, and workplace safety and health.

During a full year, the broadcasts reportedly spent a total of 13 minutes on job safety and health, while an average of more than 16 workers die daily from work-related injuries, and more than 650,000 annually suffer back, wrist or other injuries from poorly designed work stations and repetitive motion.

Though local television news shows are full of "how-to" consumer stories -- how to find good eyeglasses, how to choose a baby sitter, how to stay fit -- they rarely give advice on problems at work. There are few reports on how to get your employer to provide adequate staffing or equipment, or what to do if your boss wants to contract your work to an outside firm, force you to pay more for health insurance or put you on part-time duty.

Not only are work-related topics missing in the media, but so are workers. Studies of ABC's "Nightline" and PBS' "News Hour" found that almost all the guests were corporate or government officials, politicians or professors, while fewer than 1 percent were non-elite workers or their representatives. An examination of four months of news reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post found that not one of 201 sources mentioned in reporting on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a worker or union representative.

Succinct responses sought

ABC reporter Sam Donaldson was candid in a magazine interview about the media's practice of turning mainly to the corporate and political elite instead of working people for on-camera comment. "We know [the elite] provide a succinct response," he said. "You can't come to me and say, 'Sam, I know you're on deadline, you need a comment on such and such, go out and take a chance on Mr. X.' No, I'm sorry, folks, I don't have time to take a chance on Mr. X."

Working people are also nearly invisible in television entertainment programming. Heads of households were working-class characters in only 11 percent of prime-time network family series from 1946 to 1990, according to a study by Rider University professor Richard Butsch.

When working-class characters are shown, they often are portrayed as "dumb, immature, irresponsible or lacking in common sense," Butsch noted, referring to shows such as "The Honeymooners," "The Flintstones," "All in the Family" and "The Simpsons."

Public television doesn't do much better, according to a study of two years of PBS prime-time programming by City University of New York's Committee for Cultural Studies. Only about one hour per month dealt with the lives and concerns of workers, while nearly 10 times that much focused on the upper classes.

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