Media that benefit from inequality prefer to talk about other things

As economic inequality surges in the US, major media outlets remain fixated on other economic issues, overshadowing a fundamental challenge to American society.


Inequality has increased more rapidly in the US than Europe

Chart: Washington Center for Equitable Growth (12/9/19)

One of the defining features of contemporary US capitalism is rampant inequality. Though there is some scholarly debate about its precise extent, even conservative estimates suggest a rise in income inequality of 16% since 1979 (as measured by the Gini coefficient). Moreover, of the 38 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of mainly high-income countries, the US currently ranks dismally as the sixth-most unequal.

In 2013, then–President Barack Obama described inequality, alongside a lack of upward mobility, as the “defining challenge of our time” (CBS12/4/13). This declaration spurred a brief moment of interest in inequality on cable news channels, which proved fleeting. During the two-month window of December 2013 through January 2014—Obama made his statement during a speech on December 4—the cable news channels FoxCNN and MSNBC aired about a tenth of the total mentions of the term “inequality” that they would air from the start of 2010 through the beginning of 2024, a 14-year period.

Overshadowed by a hypothetical problem

The rapid rise in inequality over recent decades might have been expected to generate a deep sense of alarm in news media. But on cable news, there’s little sign of distress.

Compare cable coverage of inequality to coverage of other economic topics, such as inflation, recession and government debt. The following chart shows the number of mentions of various terms across FoxCNN and MSNBC over the course of 2023:

Can you make out the bottom bar? That depicts combined coverage of four terms: “income inequality,” “wealth inequality,” “class inequality” and “economic inequality.” Those four together got less than 1% of the coverage of inflation during 2023.

The skew was evident but less extreme at text-based outlets. Searches of the New York Times archives for the year of 2023 deliver 1.5 times as many articles for “debt ceiling” as for “income inequality,” 2.5 times for “recession” and 7 times for “inflation.” Searches of the Washington Post archives for the same period return a more disproportionate 18 times for “debt ceiling,” 14 times for “recession” and 34 times for “inflation.”

Note that, although inflation and a debt ceiling battle were both issues in 2023, there was no recession. The reason there was so much coverage of the topic was that economists overwhelmingly forecast a recession—and utterly whiffed—and media signal-boosted their inaccurate predictions. Fears of recession, a fantasy problem, consequently overshadowed discussion of the very real problem of inequality.

Redirecting the conversation

Pew: Fewer than half see economic inequality as a very big problem

Chart: Pew Research (1/9/20)

For media outlets owned by the wealthy, there’s obvious utility in directing the conversation away from inequality and toward other concerns. For instance, if the public’s attention can be directed toward a debt ceiling battle, corporate media outlets can hype fears about unsustainable deficits. In turn, the public can be primed to see government debt as a leading challenge, whether or not this actually makes much sense.

Public opinion data suggests that this has worked—53% of Americans see the federal budget deficit as a very big problem, whereas only 44% view economic inequality the same way.

Media hyper-fixation on inflation and a potential recession over the last couple years, meanwhile, has persistently distorted the economic evaluations of the general population, whose satisfaction with the economy remained at historically low levels last year amidst the strongest economic recovery in decades (FAIR.org1/5/24). In a recent poll, asked whether wage growth outpaced inflation over the past year, a full 90% of Americans said that it hadn’t, when in reality it had.

In each case, whether media are fearmongering about deficits, inflation or a potential recession, they have been able to steer the conversation away from progressive policies and toward a more centrist approach.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post, during last year’s debt ceiling battle, directed attention towards Social Security and Medicare, amplifying arguments for cutting these programs (FAIR.org5/17/236/15/23). During the recent bout of inflation, both papers cheered on the Federal Reserve’s campaign to “cool” the labor market (read: reduce workers’ bargaining power) and potentially hike unemployment (FAIR.org1/25/236/27/23).

Promotion of recession fears likewise functioned to sow doubts about the sweeping stimulus packages implemented in response to the pandemic, legislation that produced the most rapid recovery in decades and a substantial reduction in inequality. After all, if the inevitable result of an enhanced safety net is inflation and a downturn, why bother?

A focus on the fundamental issue of inequality, which has significantly exacerbated the effects of real but temporary issues like elevated inflation, would not serve these same ends. Rather, its likely effect would be to delegitimize centrist policies and point towards a more radical approach.

Consider these findings from a 2014 study: Asked what they view as an ideal pay ratio between CEOs and unskilled workers, Americans pointed to a ratio of 7-to-1. The real ratio at the time? 354-to-1. Meanwhile, Americans thought that the actual ratio was more like 30-to-1, about an order of magnitude off from reality.

There’s no way to get to Americans’ preferred level of equality without a massive redistribution of income. But is the public going to push for this sort of redistribution if media distract them from the topic, or if a lack of coverage results in them not even recognizing the extent of inequality in the first place?

Toward a less unequal media

CJR: Let’s make journalism work for those not born into an elite class

CJR (4/18/22) noted that “only a handful of select schools feed the mastheads of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.”

At the heart of the issue is that news media don’t just structure conversations about inequality; inequality also structures the media. The dominant news outlets are major corporations owned by the wealthy. The flow of information is far from democratically controlled. Instead, a billionaire can pick winners among media outlets by, for instance, boosting the circulation of a staunchly centrist publication like the Washington Post.

Within prominent news outlets, journalists are drawn disproportionately from privileged backgrounds and top schools. They may come in with blinders about issues like inequality that are felt more viscerally by lower-income folks.

Even more worrisome is the personal advantage that on-screen personalities on top TV networks derive from ignoring inequality, which may explain why cable news is so much worse at covering inequality than a paper like the New York Times. Popular anchors at FoxCNN and MSNBC make millions of dollars a year, putting them easily in the top 1% of earners nationwide. Is it at all surprising when they opt for an obsession with the deficit over an interest in inequality?

What can be done about this state of affairs? Calls for journalists to do better may get us somewhere, but more fundamental change is needed. As scholars Faik Kurtulmus and Jan Kandiyali have argued, getting media to pay more attention to issues affecting working-class and poor people requires a different funding model, one where the upper class doesn’t hold all the power.

One option would be a voucher system in which

everyone would be provided with a publicly funded voucher, which they would then get to spend at a news outlet of their choice, with the revenue going to that news outlet…. Coupled with a more representative and diverse pool of journalists, this could lead to a marked improvement in the media’s coverage of issues of poverty and inequality.

A complementary set of reforms are advocated by Thomas Piketty in his recent book A Brief History of Equality:

The best solution [to media concentration in the hands of the wealthy] would be to change the legal framework and adopt a law that truly democratizes the media, guaranteeing employees and journalists half the seats in the governing organs, whatever their legal form might be, opening the doors to representatives from the reading public, and drastically limiting stockholders’ power.

Ultimately, it’s going to take an attack on inequality within media to get media to take inequality seriously.


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