May 27, 1997
by Norman Solomon
April ended with some very good news: Wages are stagnant.
If you work for a living, that may sound a bit odd. But for the news media, it makes perfect sense to claim that what's bad for workers is good for the economy.
So, the April 30 front page of The New York Times trumpeted the latest economic news with a cheery headline -- "Markets Surge as Labor Costs Stay in Check."
"The stock market rocketed yesterday to its greatest gain in more than five years," the Times reported. Why? Because important people were happy that wages had barely increased in the United States. And employers hadn't shelled out more for "benefits like health insurance and pensions."
The Times front page spotlighted the jubilant comment of a senior economist at the huge brokerage firm of Goldman, Sachs and Co.: "There is no question this is a better labor cost report than we had anticipated."
"Better" for employers. But how about workers? Well, they're not worth much ink. And they're certainly not worth hearing. The 18-paragraph Times article quoted a few current and former government economists -- without a word from workers, their representatives or labor advocates.
When more money is in our pay envelopes, most news reports tell us that's bad. It's "inflationary," and it means that the economy is "overheating." But when stocks and bonds soar in value, that's supposed to make us all feel good about economic progress.
News outlets often seem dazzled by Wall Street. That fascination is especially intense on public television, where programs like the "Nightly Business Report" and Louis Rukeyser's "Wall $treet Week" keep close tabs on stock-market trends.
Catering to an upscale audience, public TV depends on millions of dollars from major companies pleased to "underwrite" programming that promotes their outlooks. It shouldn't surprise us that the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" -- funded by an agribusiness giant and an insurance company -- devotes long and fervent segments to the stock market.
The media emphasis has gotten so out of whack that we're encouraged to care more about the fortunes of Wall Street than the incomes on our own street.
But only 2 percent of the public owns half of the country's individual stock and bond holdings. Other people in the market are very small investors. And 80 percent of Americans have no direct stake in the stock markets at all. (Employees with indirect holdings via pension funds have no say in how the money is invested and can't get access to proceeds until they retire.)
Although most news accounts leave the vague impression that an upswing in the stock market augurs well for the nation's work force, the opposite has been the case.
For nearly a quarter of a century, despite advances in education, the picture for America's workers has been bleak. During that time, real wages for males have dropped 15 percent. And while women have entered a wider range of jobs, their real wages have increased by only 4 percent.
Meanwhile, investor gains and corporate profits went through the roof. Government macro-economic policies have served Wall Street's interests -- while flattening workers' income.
Just as evidence of wage stagnation makes stocks rise, Wall Streeters are frequently ecstatic to learn that a major corporation has decided to slash its payroll. "Downsizing" usually sends stock prices climbing.
Clearly, big-money investors and average workers have very different interests. But anyone who points that out is liable to face media attack for encouraging class warfare.
Actually, the mass media don't seem to mind the class warfare that's continually waged from the top down -- undermining the economic security of workers in the name of streamlining production.
"Sacred though jobs allegedly are, the institutions that have been eliminating them by the scores of thousands for their own private profit advantage are never condemned for this in mainstream comment," writes economist Edward S. Herman. "They are even complimented for having taken steps to improve efficiency, productivity and `competitiveness.'"
Herman is professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania's esteemed Wharton School. But he's out of step with the news media because he is much too concerned about the well- being of workers: "The euphemisms, including 'purr' words like restructuring and efficiency, divert attention from the fact that human lives are being shattered."
The news media are absolutely bullish on Wall Street. But workers remain undervalued -- and suffer the consequences.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His book "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) will be published in June by Common Courage Press.