Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

American Prosperity and the "Race to the Bottom:" Why Won't the Media Ask the Right Questions?

Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

American Prosperity and the "Race to the Bottom:" Why Won't the Media Ask the Right Questions?

Article excerpt

The problem of growing income inequality in the United States has become more serious over the past thirty years. A substantial number of books, scholarly papers, reports by think tanks, government data, and recently, special feature stories in national newspapers and magazines have been published on this issue. (1) Yet, for the most part, the main topics have been whether or not there is growing inequality and how much inequality is there. We have yet to move to the next, and in our view, more important phase: what are the effects of income inequality on the well-being of our economy and its participants, and what can be done about it?

In this paper we suggest that a major obstacle to moving the problem of inequality from the "discovery" phase to the "action" phase is the way inequality has been covered in the national media. Before inequality can be addressed, it must first be viewed as a serious, national problem that can and should be resolved. The media plays a unique and vital role in this regard. Indeed, the responsibility of the media to inform and educate the public on important issues has long been recognized as vital to a democracy (Croteau and Hoynes 2001; Fallows 1996). In practice, however, the performance of the media in pursuit of this public interest responsibility has fallen short of this ideal. The national media has been criticized in recent years for its overzealousness in the increased pursuit of tabloid stories, or, as in the case of the War in Iraq, a distinct lack of zealousness in the pursuit of the salient information about the links between the 9/11 terrorists and Iraq, or the extent of the development of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq. In the latter case, according to many observers, the media devoted an insufficient amount of time and effort to the "discovery" phase--an identification and analysis of the problem; and went too quickly and fervently to coverage of the calls for action. Al Gore's latest book, The Assault on Reason makes the argument that the media pay insufficient attention to factual reporting and analysis of important issues and, in so doing, undermine our ability to find the best solutions (Gore 2007). (2) In our view, media coverage of income inequality and the declining fortunes of the American middle class is a conspicuous example of the trends Gore describes. Despite a recent increase in reporting on this issue, the discussion has yet to move beyond a mere statement of the problem.

We begin with a brief survey of the debate over income inequality and the shrinking middle class in the United States as covered by the national media. In the second section, we review recent literature on the performance of the media in covering economic news. In the third section, we contrast three economic models of the raedia to assess its failure to explain the causes of growing wealth and income inequality as well as its failure to cover calls for redress of these problems. We conclude with a brief observation about the importance of the raedia in informing the electorate if we are to bring about progressive change.

Media Coverage of the Middle Class

The term "middle class" is commonly used by scholars, politicians, and reporters to discuss economic and cultural issues, but the latter two groups typically decline to offer clear definitions of what constitutes the middle class. Moreover, much confusion reigns in scholarly and policy circles about who resides in the middle class: as Steven Pressman recently noted, "theory does not and cannot tell us who counts as middle class" (Pressman 2007, 182). Given our focus in this paper on the media's coverage of the economic fortunes of the middle class, specifically, the growing income inequality evidenced in large part by the declining fortunes of the middle class, we will use Pressman's economic definition of the middle class: "being middle class means having a middle-class standard of living or having an income that is somewhere in the middle of the income distribution" (Pressman 2007, 183; see also Peterson 1994, 53 ff. …

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