Number 570 January 26, 2015

This Week: The State of U.S. Democracy

"Quote" of the Week: "Inequality Unlike Anything Seen in Recent Years"
The Third Big Theme of the Year 2014: The State of U.S. Democracy
Voting, Money, and Having a Say
Equal Rights for All?


Due to a weird editing error (which, in turn, was due to a fatigued editor), last week's "Quote" of the Week had the somewhat odd heading: "Sea Level Rise 'A Tilt from a US World to a Chinese World.'" No, I do not believe that rising sea levels are tilting the world toward China. What actually happened was that my original idea for last week's "Quote" of the Week was about sea levels rising. Then I changed my mind, but only changed part of the heading. My apologies. You'll see the sea level rise "Quote" next week, as a part of my focus on climate change.

This week is Part 3 of my hopefully six-part series on The Year's Top News Stories and How to Figure Out What They Might Be. The series is nominally about the past year of 2014, but it's really about any year, and how we decide what the news is all about. This week's Part 3 is about how the media reports on Democracy. The next part, Part 4, will be about Climate Change.

Welcome to the new readers this week!



"Quote" of the Week: "Inequality Unlike Anything Seen in Recent Years"

On January 19th the New York Times buried an article on the back page of the Business Section headlined, "Oxfam Study Finds Richest 1% Is Likely to Control Half of Global Wealth by 2016." Oxfam is a global social-justice group based in the United Kingdom. Here are some excerpts from the brief article:

"The richest 1 percent are likely to control more than half of the globe's total wealth by next year, the charity Oxfam reported in a study released on Monday.

"The 80 wealthiest people in the world altogether own $1.9 trillion, the report found, nearly the same amount shared by the 3.5 billion people who occupy the bottom half of the world's income scale. (Last year, it took 85 billionaires to equal that figure.) And the richest 1 percent of the population, who number in the millions, control nearly half of the world's total wealth, a share that is also increasing.

"The type of inequality that currently characterizes the world's economies is unlike anything seen in recent years, the report explained. 'Between 2002 and 2010 the total wealth of the poorest half of the world in current U.S. dollars had been increasing more or less at the same rate as that of billionaires,' it said. 'However since 2010, it has been decreasing over that time.'

"Investors with interests in finance, insurance and health saw the biggest windfalls, Oxfam said. Using data from Forbes magazine's list of billionaires, it said those listed as having interests in the pharmaceutical and health care industries saw their net worth jump by 47 percent. The charity credited those individuals' rapidly growing fortunes in part to multimillion-dollar lobbying campaigns to protect and enhance their interests."


The Third Big Theme of the Year 2014: The State of U.S. Democracy

What were the stories in 2014 that informed us about the nature of Democracy in the United States and the direction we are going?

There were so many! But my nominee for The Year's Top Story on the subject of democracy is


The American Society of News Editors, in their 2014 Census of the nation's newsrooms, reported that there are now about 36,700 full-time daily newspaper journalists at nearly 1,400 newspapers in the United States. That's a 1,300-person (3.5 percent) decrease from 38,000 in 2012. And that continues a trend that has "put the industry down 30 percent since 2000." And that 38,000 number marked the first time since 1978 that there were fewer than 40,000 full-time professional newsroom employees in this country.

The Pew Research Center's Journalism Project reported in 2014 on how the "revenue picture" for American journalism "is changing." The US news industry as a whole generates about $65 billion per year. We can get a sense of scale when we consider that Google alone generated $58 billion dollars in 2013 (most recent figures available).

"At this point," says Pew, "professional newsgathering is still largely supported by advertising" in the old-school journalistic businesses, like newspapers and TV. "But [the report continues] other ways of paying for news are becoming more visible. Much of the momentum is around ... high-profile interest from the tech world, in the form of venture capital and individual and corporate investments, which bring with them different skill sets and approaches to journalism."

Think about that for a moment: We're moving from a world in which the basic information needed to govern ourselves is paid for by corporations trying to sell their products (i.e. advertising), toward a world in which corporations, venture capitalists, and wealthy individuals (with "different skill sets") are paying the bills involved in providing this essential public service.
Adds Pew, "Philanthropy is growing, too, particularly as a source of capital for regional and investigative journalism." Now, about that "philanthropy." While there may be some examples of corporate foundations providing the funding for hard-hitting journalism, let's not forget that "foundations have their own priorities and their own agendas," as Akhila Kolisetty writes in the blog "How Matters." She adds that, as the nonprofit model of funding has gained prominence, "movements have become co-opted into groups that do good, but are unable to challenge broader societal injustices and structures of oppression in our world." She adds that "This is the phenomenon described in [the book] 'The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,' where social movements to challenge injustice and exploitation have been co-opted and transformed into more non-threatening forms that perpetuate the status quo."

Long story short: This bias among foundations toward the status quo means that if we want a media that's really willing to challenge power, we can't depend on "philanthropy" to pay for it.

But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater: Even corporate media, when given enough resources, often provides important information about the world that can't be gotten any other way. So this cutback in funding of mainstream journalism is depriving us of some basic information that—distorted as it often is—we need to understand the nature of the world around us. As an example, the American Journalism Review (AJR) noted in 2011 that "many mainstream news organizations have turned their backs on foreign news. Newspapers and television networks alike provide much less of it. Many outlets have shuttered overseas bureaus..." Indeed, "Over the past quarter-century, foreign news in the dailies examined by AJR fell by 53 percent."

Out of sight, out of mind, and it goes beyond foreign reporting. The labor magazine In These Times reported in 2009 that "Newspapers across the country have gouged their staffs in order to stave off unhappy Wall Street investors and prop up their profit margins. Foreign bureaus were the first to go. Then newspaper owners trimmed further, eliminating beat reporters, copyeditors and even top editor positions. Now media execs have set their sights on Washington, D.C., getting rid of the reporters who covered policy and politicians from a local angle."

Also in 2009, AJR noted that "As newspapers grapple with the ever-growing pressure to cut costs, more and more of them come to view Washington bureaus as luxuries they simply cannot afford. During the last three years, newspapers . . . have eliminated more than 40 Washington regional reporter positions through layoffs, buyouts or attrition." So, as severe as the cutbacks in foreign bureaus have been, "in sheer numbers, the withdrawal [of reporters] from Washington has been much greater."

Here's an example of The Market at work on the news media. Pew points out that "Local television ... remains the primary place American adults turn to for news." That's frightening in itself, but consider that, in 2013, "there were fewer stations producing original news compared with 2012, primarily the result of television acquisitions that left fewer companies in control of more stations. At this point, fully a quarter of the 952 U.S. television stations that air newscasts do not produce their news programs."

That's a loss because, even in a corporate news environment, when the reporters and editors actually live in the communities they serve, there are human reasons why they might report on important, but less "eye-catching" stories. They are, on some level, accountable to their neighbors, their families, their community. As venture capitalists and mega-corporations gobble up local news outlets, there are no countervailing forces to the simple need to maximize return on investment.

That explains why, in a content analysis of local TV news, the Pew Center found that "sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40% of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths shrink."

I could go on forever on this theme, but all of the examples would simply underline the system-wide decline of journalism that we're seeing as the advertising-based financing system goes by the wayside. This overall trend is completely toxic to democratic participation, since uninformed people are passive people. And, if nobody gets the license number of that truck that just ran us down, the odds are that the truck will continue to run people down, and will never be held accountable.

So, in the larger story of The State of U.S. Democracy, my choice for Top Story of 2014 is the ongoing Decline of Journalism. But it's far from the only one. Let's have a look at some of the other Top Stories, starting with voting rights.


Voting, Money, and Having a Say

Since we're looking at The State of U.S. Democracy this week, it would be helpful to spell out what I mean when I talk about "Democracy." It's a complex subject (if you don't believe it, see my 7-part "Democracy Series" that began in NN #378). But, for now, I'll mention just three aspects that I think help define a democratic political culture:
1. Everyone has at least some say in decisions that affect them.
2. Equal rights for all, not based on rank or privilege
3. Democracy as a process, not a commodity. That is, democracy is something we do, not something we have.


The act of voting is the obvious place to start when talking about having a say in how things are done. There were a number of developments in 2014 in this realm. Start with the fact that the 2014 midterm election had the lowest turnout since 1942, with more than 144 million eligible voters not casting a vote. Something is going on here, and we should be seeing a whole bunch of stories exploring the various factors that might be involved here.

On December 18th the Brennan Center for Justice released a report called "Voting Laws Roundup 2014," in which they remind us that "Voting rights continues to be a highly contentious issue in America." Brennan notes that "Starting after the 2010 midterm elections, legislators in dozens of states introduced scores of laws to make it harder to vote."

Specifically, "At least 83 restrictive bills were introduced in 29 states... in 2014" and "Two states (Ohio and Wisconsin) have passed 4 restrictive bills this session." These include well-documented attacks that I've written about repeatedly, such as Voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, voter purges, making registration more difficult, and so forth.

On the other hand, says Brennan, "Voters and advocates pushed back at the ballot box and the courts..." At least 340 expansive bills that would increase access to voting were introduced in 42 states plus the District of Columbia in 2014," and "12 states plus the District of Columbia have passed 19 expansive bills this session." These bills have to do with things like early voting, online voter registration, and restoration of felon voting rights.

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, which should provide the perfect "hook" to justify publishing many stories on this "contentious issue"; let's hope the media does a better job of covering it in 2015 than they did in 2014.


Another big factor in determining who has a say in the political/economic life of the country is money. It's hard to know where to start here, but some have called the 2014 midterm elections the "Money Midterms," referring to the roughly $4 billion that was spent on campaigns nationwide. While the mass media tends to run stories on which of the two major parties is richer, the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) reminds us that "The real story of the election's campaign finance chapter was not which side had more resources, but that such a large chunk of the cost was paid for by a small group of ultra-wealthy donors using outside groups to bury voters with an avalanche of spending." And the ultra-rich give untold millions to both parties, since both parties produce candidates that the ultra-rich feel they can trust. In this vein, a story that was less prominent than it should have been was a provision hidden on page 1,599 of the so-called "cromnibus" bill (short for "continuing resolution/omnibus spending bill) passed by the US Congress last month. That provision "increases more than ten times the amount individual donors can give to national political parties, from $32,400 to $324,000 per year," according to a statement from Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge.

I don't know which specific congressperson or persons were behind this, but CRP reminds us that "Once again, the majority of members of Congress are millionaires." So maybe the scale of injustice looks smaller from up there, who knows?

Finally, I reported back in May on a study called"Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens." This study summed it up well, asking, "What do our findings say about democracy in America? ... Our findings indicate [that] the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it."

Go back to NN #554 and re-read my article "The Majority Does Not Rule" for more on that study.


Equal Rights for All?

Related to having a say in how things are done is the extent to which equal rights are guaranteed to all, without regard to rank or privilege. In 2014/2015 we have the unprecedented amount of media attention being paid to the killing of black people by police. USA Today reported in the week after black teenager Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, that "Nearly two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide reported to the FBI." ("Local police involved in 400 killings per year," August 15, 2014)

And that outrageous number very likely understates the problem, as the article explains:

"While the racial analysis is striking, the database it's based on has been long considered flawed and largely incomplete. The killings are self-reported by law enforcement and not all police departments participate so the database undercounts the actual number of deaths. Plus, the numbers are not audited after they are submitted to the FBI and the statistics on 'justifiable' homicides have conflicted with independent measures of fatalities at the hands of police."

But, at the moment, this is the best we can do since, as Mother Jones Magazine noted in an August 14th article ("Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?"): "No agency appears to track the number of police shootings or killings of unarmed victims in a systematic, comprehensive way." University of South Carolina criminologist Geoff Alpert underlines that point, saying "There is no national database for this type of information, and that is so crazy. We've been trying for years, but nobody wanted to fund it and the (police) departments didn't want it."

Such willful ignorance is one of the things that protesters are pointing to when they chant "Black Lives Matter" at rallies around the country.

So, if the killing of unarmed, largely black, men by police has been going on for so long, why is it suddenly "news"? It's because of enormous organizing efforts and the creative use of civil disobedience, social media, and ongoing public displays of rage and hope. That's why large numbers of previously ignorant members of the public have at least heard about the killings by police of Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Akai Gurley in New York, John Crawford in Ohio, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, Marcus Golden in St. Paul, Jerame Reid in New Jersey, Levar Jones in South Carolina... I can't list them all.

Such killings are a part of a larger story about the relationship between people of color and the "justice" system in the U.S.

My local newspaper reported on the large protests on Martin Luther King Day in St. Paul, noting that the Black Lives Matter protests are not only demanding "an immediate end to the unjust police murders of unarmed black people. Other demands included legislation to outlaw racial profiling by police, creation of an independent community board to review police actions, repeal of ordinances against conduct such as loitering that might be used to harass minorities, and statewide adoption of body cameras by police." These calls aren't new, but now we read about it in the local daily newspaper. That's progress. And more generally, although the killing of black people by police continues, the increased willingness to talk about it is a good sign for the democratic promise of equal rights under the law.

This is a great example of the power of "framing" in the media. Much of the media coverage of the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others, gets framed as a story of victimization and suffering. Which it is, in part. But when it is framed as a part of the story of U.S. democracy, suddenly we can see the stories of creative resistance and hope, as well. The answer to the question "How hopeful are we?" tells us a lot about the state of U.S. democracy. Which leads to my final factor to consider in assessing the State of U.S. Democracy

Democracy as a Process, Not a Commodity

The question in a democracy is not who's winning and who's losing. The question is: What is the current status of the public's capacity to affect public life? To those for whom the State of U.S. Democracy is "the story," such a question will find its answer in many smaller stories. Here we'll find stories about union membership and union activities. Stories about membership in politically-minded groups. Stories about public issue advocacy. Stories about the size, strength and composition of political groups (and not only the two major parties). Stories about the capacity of non-governmental organizations to effect change and/or affect consciousness. Stories of the growth and vitality of our common spaces, our coming-together and our drifting apart. Stories about our capacity to work together, and stories about how and why we succeed or fail.

Consider the Black Lives Matter reporting. Moving beyond the suffering and injustice, we could look to see the nature of the conditions within which the numerous rallies and protests came to happen. Why now? What is the nature of the leadership? Of the membership? What is the role of social media and other technologies? Are new groups leading the organizing, or is there a new energy in existing groups? What are the strategic and tactical innovations that are being made, and how effective are they in responding to 2014, and 2015, realities?

Another example of the process of democracy might be the endlessly- and tediously-reported elections. Media is obsessed with the horse race. ("Can anyone beat Hilary in 2016???") But media could instead choose to focus on the rise and fall of coalitions and social forces that form the context within which politicians have to work. Like I always say, the fact that Mitch McConnel or Rand Paul got elected is less important than the fact that somebody like them got elected.

Next Week: Climate Change/Humans and Our Environment