Privilege-Serving Story Placement at the New York Times

ZNet, June 7, 2015

One of the many ways in which the capitalist press serves the owning class has to do with story placement – where it places a report.  Considers the recent story titled “Inequality Troubles Americans Across Party Lines” in the New York Times last Thursday.

It’s a remarkable news item for anyone who cares about democracy and social justice in the U.S.  In a recent telephone survey of more than 1100 randomly selected U.S. adults, the Times reported, the paper and CBS found that the U.S. citizenry stands to the progressive and populist left on numerous key political-economic issues. Pollsters working for the two corporate media giants learned that:

  • Two-thirds (66%) of Americans think that the distribution of money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among more people in the U.S.
  • 61% of Americans believe that in today’s economy it’s mainly just a few people at the top who have a chance to get ahead.
  • 83% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor is a problem.
  • 67% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be addressed immediately, not as some point in the future.
  • 57% of Americans think the U.S. government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S.
  • “Almost three-quarters [74%] of respondents say that large corporations have too much influence in the county, about the double the amount that said the same of unions.”
  • 68% of Americans favor raising taxes on people “earning” – the pollsters’ term (a better one would be “taking”) – more than $1 million per year.
  • 85% of Americans favor requiring employers to offer paid sick leave to workers who are ill.
  • 80% of Americans favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to parents of new children and employees caring for sick family members.
  • 73% of Americans favor requiring chain stores and fast-food outlets to give workers at least two weeks’ notice of any changes in their work schedule or provide them with extra pay.
  • 50% of Americans support limits on money “earned” by top executives at large corporations.

“Americans [are] skeptical of [so-called] free trade.  Nearly two-thirds [63%] favored some form of trade restrictions, and more than half opposed giving the president [fast-track] authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only vote up or down without amendments.”

These are noteworthy findings. They show majority support for greater economic equality and opportunity, increased worker rights, a roll-back of corporate power, and trade regulation. As the Times might have added but naturally did not, this public opinion is pitilessly mocked by harshly lopsided socioeconomic realities and coldly dollar-drenched plutocratic politics and policy in the U.S. America is mired in a New Gilded Age of savage inequality and abject financial corporatocracy so extreme that the top 1 percent garnered 95 of all U.S. income gains during Barack Obama’s first administration and owns more 90 percent of the nation’s wealth along with a probably equivalent portion of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials. Over the past three plus decades, the liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) have determined, the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority and regardless of which party holds the White House or Congress (the current “liberal” Democratic U.S. president, for example, is trying to push the deeply regressive and authoritarian “free trade” [investor rights]Trans-Pacific Partnership and “fast-track” legislation enabling that treaty through Congress).  “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

A story about Gilens and Page’s research in the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last year bore an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” The report contained a link to an interview with Gilens in which he explained that “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S. —what Noam Chomsky calls “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’”

Where did the Times place its write-up on its important survey on public opinion on inequality and worker rights? The first part of the Times’ report appeared well below the front-page fold, comprising up two short columns in the bottom left corner of the first page of the paper’s opening news section.  It was located beneath stories on the Islamic State’s political gains, the Democratic Party’s efforts to defend voting rights in Republican states, education in Kenya, and an import restriction’s impact on the Pentagon’s ability to build rockets. Even worse, the majority of “Inequality Troubles Americans Across Party Lines” appeared on the eighth page of the Times’ business section. It was published there behind articles about an Apple music app, Bitcoin rules, and Yahoo’s recent winning of the right to host the first live Webcast of a regular season National Football League game.  The main findings of the Times-CBS poll are printed just above the following two stories: “Showtime to Offer Streaming Service” and “Netflix Expanding Its Programming for Children With 4 Animated Series.”

This might seem like a trifling quibble, but it is no small matter. By taking most of their story about the Times-CBS poll out of their national and political news section and placing it in their  business (and sports) section, the Times’ editors privatized (so to speak) and de-politicized the report.  They suggested that majority public opposition to currently reigning extreme U.S. inequality, plutocracy, and “free trade” and majority popular support for workers’ rights and for the downward distribution of wealth, income, and power are matters mainly for the consideration of corporate managers and business professionals – not everyday citizens and regular readers. The New York Times is an elite venue. Its business section is especially so, making it a curious place to locate most of a story on a poll demonstrating the (all-too technically irrelevant under current “RECD”) populist and progressive sentiments of the popular majority.

Such telling story mis-/dis-placement is authoritarian. It’s a way of pulling the survey’s strikingly populist findings – full of dark meaning for the national establishment’s ritual claim that the U.S. is the homeland and headquarters of global “democracy” – back from the potentially troublesome public and political sphere and into more private and privilege-friendly confines.

Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).  He can be reached at paul.street99@gmail.com

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By | 2015-06-07T10:25:50+00:00 June 7th, 2015|Articles|