Thursday, March 25, 2004
All the news that's fit to print
One of McChesney's arguments, perhaps the main one, focuses on the way that mainstream news coverage distorts our perception of reality through the choices they make about the kinds of stories that count as news. McChesney's not, or not mostly, talking about the media's decision to cover something like the 9-11 commission hearings rather than, say, the current deadlock on Bush's proposed budget. Both of those stories are of pretty much the same sort, and you can imagine the budget story topping the headlines on a different day.
There are two things that the stories have in common, and that make them fundamentally different from the kinds of stories that rarely make it into the news. First, the stories both have a discrete and easily identifiable location in time and space. The federal budget is important year round. What makes it news today is that the budget deadlock is an event. Second, both stories feature a cast of characters who are easily recognized as newsmakers. They are important people; the sorts of folks who can create an event by opening their mouths in public.
There are a lot of reasons why the mainstream media chooses to (mostly) limit their coverage to stories that fall within these parameters. It's easier and cheaper than spending a lot of time mucking around trying to figure out what really matters. It's what the audience is used to, and as a result, is safer than other choices might be. And it may be, as McChesney alleges, that corporate owners wouldn't tolerate a different paradigm.
McChesney's point, by the way, is not that events like the budget debate and the 9-11 Commission hearings aren't stories that should be covered. What he's saying is that by focusing on stories like those you get an incomplete picture. It's essentially the social history critique applied to current events.
Something I've noticed about the blogosphere is that, for the most part, bloggers mirror the mainstream media in their choices about the kinds of stories that count as news. This strikes me as unfortunate.
One of the things I've tried to do in this blog is develop a beat that takes a broader view. For the most part this means that I pay a lot of attention to labor news.
I think labor news is important for a lot of reasons. To begin with, labor news has to do with real and significant events in people's lives. Also, looking closely at labor disputes provides insight into important structural forces at work in American society. Most importantly from my perspective, though, is that strong labor unions are the only institutions I know of that have the potential to resolve the most pressing issues facing us today.
Let me say something about this last claim. What are the most pressing issues? One of them, I think, is the rising cost of health insurance and the growing number of people who have to make do without coverage.
Some time ago I was talking to a first year teaching assistant, trying to convince her to join the union. She agreed that our health insurance was lousy, that a strong union could help us secure better coverage, and that by joining the union she would help make it stronger. Still, she wouldn't sign a card. Why not? She didn't think it would be fair for graduate employees to have affordable health care when so many others would remain uninsured. If I had been trying to get her to join some organization that would only lobby Congress she would have jumped on board. Since I wasn't, she wasn't interested.
As I've blogged before, I think it would be great if we had a comprehensive national healthcare system. But I also think the only way to get there is by having strong unions that win major concessions from employers. Why? Because the only way to fund comprehensive national healthcare is by imposing a new tax on employers. And the only way employers are going to sit still for that is if the burden of the new tax is offset by savings in their employees' benefits packages.
Even short of this, unions represent considerable concentrations of political power. Today The Joe Hill Dispatch called my attention to this article from Crain's Chicago Business. The key paragraphs:
Illinois hospitals have agreed to provide free or discounted care to the uninsured.
Under terms of the deal the Illinois Hospital Assn. (IHA) reached with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Friday, uninsured families with incomes up to $18,850 per year will get free care. The income limit is tied to the federal poverty level and increases based on family size.
In addition to requiring free care for patients at or below the federal poverty level, the agreement compels hospitals to provide services at cost to anyone who earns less than $18,620.
From my point of view this is big news and a big victory. SEIU was acting here as a health care advocacy group, but their ability to do this is directly tied to the fact that workers have come together and pooled their resources. We have an organization here in Champaign, the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, that acts as an advocacy group for issues like this. I really admire the CCHCC, and think they do a fantastic job, but their funding comes entirely from grants and donations so they'll never have the kind of muscle that SEIU does.
To be fair, it's pretty likely that the SEIU story will get a lot of play, especially here in Illinois. But the story behind the story won't. That story has to do with the day to day work of building organizations like SEIU. One of America's open secrets is that the deck is stacked against those who try to organize unions. This is in sharp contrast to the public mythology of super-powerful unions that distort markets and drive employers out of business. This is a myth that wouldn't survive media, or for that matter blogospheric, scrutiny.
Will a change in media focus bring about fundamental changes in the way our society operates? Of course not. Talking isn't the same as doing, and there's a hell of a lot to be done. But a change in focus is one of the necessary steps.