This past week I have encountered more proof that anti-unionism is now part of the arsenal of ideological assumptions that the mass media makes on our behalf. I saw two examples of an anti-union subtext in articles by two writers whose work I generally admire: James Surowieki, who writes The New Yorker’s “Financial Page, and Len Boselovic, a business writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Now I’m not saying that either of these writers consciously tried to deliver carefully hidden slams to unions, only that slamming unions is so accepted now, that it has become second nature to do so in mainstream news stories.
First Surowieki: In a thoroughly disgraceful article titled “Living by Default” in the latest New Yorker, Surowieki joins the line of economic reporters advocating that people whose houses are worth less than their mortgage should walk away, even if they can afford to pay the monthly tab. As so many of these articles do, Surowieki begins by talking about the advantages of bankruptcy to a business, in this case, American Airlines: “Declaring bankruptcy will trim American’s debt load and allow it to break its union contracts, so that it can slim down and cut costs.” Note that he assumes that it is an admirable thing to break union contracts. It’s not that he advocates breaking union contracts; he just assumes that it’s a great thing to do and assumes that the reader agrees with him.
Boselevic’s anti-union subtext is subtler. Here is the beginning of an article about a think tank report on public pensions that was the lead in the Sunday, December 18 business section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Nothing elevates the blood pressure of taxpayers like dipping into their pockets to make good on pension promises made to government employees by the very local and state government officials they voted into office.”
First note that it’s a completely inaccurate statement, at least if we are to believe every study that has polled U.S. voters on tax issues over the past six months. These studies all find that about two thirds of us want the wealthy to pay more in taxes. The only study of attitudes toward public pensions I have found was of Californians, 40% of whom were pissed off by public pensions. In most circles 67 beats 40 in a landslide. My conclusion is that nothing elevates the blood pressure of most tax payers as much as contemplating how little millionaires now pay compared to 10 and 35 years ago.
But behind the inaccurate hyperbole, why do I perceive an anti-union bias in the article? As I have written before, the current media campaign against public pensions is an extension of the war against unions started by Ronald Reagan because most government workers with pensions are in unions. Bemoaning public pensions internalizes anti-unionism. That the article plugs “public pensions” into the blank of a standard rhetorical device, i.e., “nothing boils the blood as much as ____” turns it into a throwaway line, like a quick one-line joke in a crime drama. Such throwaways are one of the many ways that writers communicate ideology without stating it overtly. In this case, the ideology is anti-unionism.
Speaking of hidden messages, ABC news did a great job earlier this week of gently reminding the American people that they should care more about lowering taxes than creating jobs or helping the unemployed, hungry and poor. At the end of ABC’s long analysis Thursday of the temporary House Republican blockage of a temporary extension of the payroll tax cut, ABC is the latest media outlet or pundit to quote what the Wall Street Journal recently wrote: “Republicans have also achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter…” ABC and The Journal spin the corner into which the House Republicans have painted themselves in right wing terms. These media could have said that Obama is winning the job creation debate, or that he’s winning the 99% versus 1% debate. But both media defined Obama’s win in terms of the ideological premise that lowering taxes is always good.
One hidden message that the news media never seems to take a break from beaming at us is the denigration of intellectual striving and knowledge. Yesterday a New York Times headline writer employed a tried-and-true, decades-old rhetorical device to denigrate intellectualism: “math is hard.” The “math is hard” myth is one of the corollaries of the “school isn’t fun” myth, a pillar of the American anti-intellectual ideology. The Times story in question was an “animal research can be cute” story about pigeons having enough abstract reasoning ability to learn to count to 9. The headline delivers the anti-intellectual message: “Stumped by Math? Ask a Pigeon for Help.” But what kind of math is the headline writer talking about? Counting to 9. Talk about an intellectual challenge! (LOL)
I’m certain that if we would started actively looking in the top 10 or 15 national mainstream media outlets, we would find dozens of examples every week of reporters assuming an ideological imperative or placing little nuggets of ideology in the details of what they write.