|January 9, 2015
2015 marks the fifth year that I have been featuring an unorthodox look at The Year's Top News Stories. This year I'm going to devote several issues to it, as I want to think about the meaning of "Top Stories." Part of my motivation is that this year-end ritual can help us to understand the nature of the media system that we now have. But also, when looked at from a different angle, this year-end reflection can help us to imagine the kind of media system we would like to have, and to think about how we might begin to build it.
No room to write more, this issue is jam-packed. Welcome to the new subscribers!
This week's Big Theme in Nygaard Notes is Inequality and Resource Allocation. In that vein, the headline in the Metro/State section of the December 30th Star Tribune read: "Homeless Being Priced Out." Here's the lead, which is this week's "Quote" of the Week because it should have been on the front page:
"Many of the state's poorest families found little to no relief over the past year, despite dropping unemployment and booming construction. The number of homeless children and families in Minnesota remains higher than before and during the recession..."
The article listed three reasons why this is true:
On December 22nd the Associated Press released the results of their annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors, in which they vote for what they consider The Year's Top News Stories. Lots of news organizations do similar lists, but the Associated Press is the largest and most influential news service based in the United States (Reuters and Agence France Press are based outside of the country), so their list gets widely reported, or at least referenced, in all parts of the country.
The AP reminds us that "The voting was conducted before the announcement that the United States and Cuba were re-establishing diplomatic relations and Sony Pictures' decision to withdraw its film 'The Interview' in the wake of computer hacking and threats." With that qualification, then, here are the top ten stories of the year as determined by the AP poll:
The KILLINGS BY POLICE of Michael Brown in Ferguson MO and Eric Garner in New York prompted large protests and, when grand juries chose not to indict the officers, the protests took on a life of their own. This was the AP's Top Story of 2014.
In second place was the worst EBOLA epidemic on record, which began in early 2014 and is still raging on in West Africa as of the end of the year. Number 3 was the rise of the ISLAMIC STATE and the resistance to it. Here are the remaining six stories: 4. US MIDTERM ELECTIONS; 5. The continuing rollout of OBAMACARE, and the frantic resistance to it; 6. The March DISAPPEARANCE OF MALAYSIA AIRLINES Flight 370 with 239 people on board; 7. The November actions by President Obama on IMMIGRATION and, again, the frantic Republican resistance to it; 8. EVENTS IN UKRAINE; 9. Ongoing struggles around GAY MARRIAGE, now legal in 35 states encompassing about 64 percent of the population, and; 10. The SCANDAL involving the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It's really a remarkable list, if you think about it. Nothing about climate change! Nothing about inequality! Nothing about jobs or the economy! How can this be? It's simple, actually, if we only keep in mind what is the fundamental structure of the media industry, which is to sell advertising. That is, the more people they can get to look at the ads, the more money a news outlet will make. So it should be no surprise that the judgement about what is—or is not—a "top story" has a lot to do with a story's "popularity." If more people look at a story—never mind whether it's important by anyone's standards—then it will rank high in the list of Top Stories. What this means is that (although editors would likely deny it), the ranking is basically decided by "market forces."
In simplest terms: Looked at from the market's point of view, "top" means "most viewed." Looked at from an activist point of view, a "top" story is one that helps us participate in shaping the world in which we live. A popular story isn't necessarily important. And an important story isn't necessarily popular.
There's another thing that shapes mainstream judgements about Top Stories, in fact about the nature of "news" itself. And that is the dominant Thought System in the United States.
The Nature of Normal, The Nature of News
In the dominant Thought System (which we may call "analytic" or "scientific") the normal state of affairs is order and stability. When things appear to be no more nor less than what they are, solid and unchanging, then everything is said to be "normal." No news here!
A different, more dialectical Thought System would say that the normal state of affairs is not stability, but change. Everything we see or experience is understood to be constantly in motion, changing and mutating as things respond to an ever-changing world and go about their business. And their business is not "being," but rather "becoming."
This is not some abstract philosophical point (at least, it's not only an abstract philosophical point). It absolutely applies to journalism, and here's how. Imagine you are a journalist looking for a story. Let's say you're interested in human welfare. Forget any considerations of "ratings" or delivering viewers to advertisers. How do you decide what is newsworthy? It's newsworthy when 1. It changes, and 2. We can see it changing. That's why things that explode or collapse are considered more newsworthy than things that slowly and imperceptibly decay and degrade.
I've suggested in earlier versions of The Nygaard Notes Top News Stories that we approach the entire project from a different angle. I suggest that we project ourselves into the future and imagine that we are historians looking back on the media of today. The first thing we do is to decide what were the Big Themes of the day. In a sense, these ARE the Year's Top Stories. That is, they are so important that any big changes are news, and if we didn't see much change last year, then THAT'S news.
Once we have our Big Themes, then if we want to choose specific stories for a list, it's much easier: The Top Stories will be the ones that best help us to understand how and why the Big Themes were unfolding in 2014.
Here are the Big Themes that I've come up with to help in choosing the Nygaard Notes version of The Year's Top News Stories of 2014.
1. Inequality and Resource Allocation
From the most committed activist to the person who does nothing more than vote, we all need information about how our world works. So this "Big Themes" approach can be a useful way to imagine how we decide what goes on the front pages, and what is simply gawker material. In fact, the very process of deciding which Big Themes are the most important should be a democratic process in itself. The list above is simply my personal list, and may or may not resemble any lists that a diverse, representative group would come up with. And, of course, your personal list may also be entirely different. The point is, deciding what's important via a democratic process of some sort is different than the popularity contest that The Market demands. That's the point I'm trying to make with this series.
There were all sorts of (un- or under-reported) stories in 2014 that informed us about who gets what, and why, in the United States.
The Nygaard Notes Top Story on Inequality and Resource Allocation is this:
MOST HOUSEHOLDS HAVE LESS WEALTH NOW THAN THEY DID IN 1989.
That's from a November 6th report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, entitled "The Wealth of Households: An Analysis of the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances." The survey, released this past fall by the Federal Reserve Board, "shows a picture in which most households are seeing a deterioration of their wealth status. This is of greatest concern for near retirees, most of whom cannot count on a traditional defined benefit pension," says the report.
They are talking here about wealth, but there's also a growing inequality in income, which is the money you take in every year, and which adds to your wealth if you have any left over. They're related, of course, since those of us who don't have any income left over after paying the bills end up with less wealth—sometimes actually negative wealth, which is when your debts are more than your assets. More and more people find themselves in this situation.
The New York Times of September 17th, in a story on the annual Census Bureau report
The Census Bureau also reported that "A comparison of real median household income over the past six years shows that income is 8.0 percent lower than in 2007, the year before the nation entered an economic recession."
On December 18th the Economic Policy Institute published "The Top 10 Charts of 2014," which "show why addressing inequality and spurring wage growth is so necessary—and so doable. Policy choices led to these trends, and different policy choices can reverse them." The charts show, among other things, that "The minimum wage would be over $18 had it risen along with productivity"; "Since 1979, productivity has risen eight times faster than pay," and; "Wage gap shows how far from full recovery we remain." Find the charts HERE.
Back on January 14th of the past year the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality released "The State of the Union on Poverty and Inequality 2014." The 60-page report cites several key findings and their implications. I don't necessarily agree with all of their "implications," but so what? I'm just reported what corporate media should have reported! There are few quotation marks in this list, since I'm paraphrasing here, but most of the words are lifted from the actual report:
1. A FAILING LABOR MARKET: The economy is still not delivering enough jobs. In 2013, the proportion of all 25- to 54-year-olds who hold jobs was almost 5 percent lower than in 2007, for both women and men. A full recovery from the Great Recession is unlikely if the economy does not deliver more jobs and better-paying jobs.
2. RISING POVERTY: The official poverty rate increased from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 15 percent in 2012. The child poverty rate increased from 18 percent in 2007 to 21.8 percent in 2012. A very responsive safety net has held poverty rates down to roughly what prevailed during the weaker recessions of the 1980s and 1990s.
3. A STRONGER (BUT STRAINED) SOCIAL SAFETY NET: The safety net is providing a growing share of the support that low-income households need to escape poverty. In 2012, safety net programs provided the third-highest level of such "poverty relief" (i.e., support needed to reach 150 percent of the official poverty line) in the last 25 years.
4. A SAFETY NET THAT INCREASINGLY ENCOURAGES MARKET WORK: The safety net is doing a better job of protecting households from sharp declines in support when people increase their market earnings. As a result, the safety net is better equipped to encourage or "incentivize" employment. This is due largely to the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable tax credit for low- to moderate-income households that was expanded in the early 1990s and is still effective today.
5. INCREASING INCOME INEQUALITY: After mid-2009, most measures of income inequality increased, resuming what has been a nearly relentless growth in income inequality during the last 30 years.
6. RISING WEALTH INEQUALITY: This is different than "income inequality," which measures how much money you made last year. "Wealth inequality" talks about the money and other assets that you possess, in addition to your annual income. The Stanford report tells us that "wealth inequality rose for the first time since the early 1980s." Figures for 2010 indicate wealth inequality is higher than any level recorded in nearly three decades. Also, the Great Recession reduced the net worth of African Americans and Hispanics "much more than it reduced the net worth of whites."
7. The report also notes mixed records on inequality in health and education.
Is the media failure to report on inequality possibly due to the fact that most people don't care about this issue? Well, there's some evidence that this is not the case. For example, in May of 2014 Thomas Piketty's book "Capital in the 21st Century" reached Number One on Amazon.com AND on the New York Times best-selling hardcover nonfiction list. One of the central arguments of the book is that worsening inequality is an inevitable outcome of capitalism. And he calls for a tax on wealth, and very high marginal tax rates on income. This critique of capitalism and the inequality it breeds became a best-seller in the United States last year, indicating that there is quite a bit of interest in inequality and the reasons behind it.
But don't most people think that inequality is "just the way it is," so there's nothing we can do? Not so. A CNN Poll released in January of 2014 asked respondents, "Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? The government should work to substantially reduce the income gap between the rich and the poor." Two-thirds (66 percent) agreed, 31 percent disagreed, and only 3 percent were unsure. Such responses call into question the idea that The Market is the answer to everything.
The story here is that the rich are getting richer and not only the poor, but everybody who is not rich is getting poorer. That belongs on the front pages of the nation's newspapers.