Monthly Archives: August 2009

Reinventing Journalism

In March, we wrote about the “deindustrialization” of journalism, the displacement of traditional journalists by the steady closures of newspapers as readers increasingly rely on free online news. . For those in former steel and auto towns like the Mahoning Valley, the story rings familiar: a once great industry displaces experienced workers in search of  cheaper labor and newer technology, while the workers who once fueled the industry are left scrambling for their next paycheck.

In her address to graduates of The Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Barbara Ehrenreich welcomed newcomers to a dying industry and assured them that they have plenty of company as practitioners of a weakened craft in a rapidly shifting economy:

How do you think it feels to be an autoworker right now? And I’ve spent time with plenty of laid-off paper mill workers, construction workers and miners. They’ve got skills; they’ve got experience. They just don’t have jobs.

Through our journalism projects with The Center for Working-Class Studies, we’ve spent time with professionals from some of the trade’s most storied institutions — The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, The Columbia Journalism Review, and others. We’ve listened to their anxieties, sparked, in part, by diminished job security but also reflecting their genuine concern that the decline of journalism will undermine the future of democracy, which functions best with a concerned, well-informed electorate.

Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Shultz, who often writes about the plight of working-class people, is worried that already under-represented members of society will become invisible if newspapers and other traditional media no longer have the resources to conduct important investigative and enterprise reporting. On the other hand, she suggests that as veteran professionals increasingly find themselves under the ever-present threat of unemployment, “most of us have a lot more in common these days with the people we cover.”As journalists are displaced, they may become better able to understand the struggles and perspectives of working-class people, whose stories have too often been ignored.

Schultz and others are exploring strategies for saving traditional journalism.  Media companies and journalists alike are searching for strategies that might protect not only their own existence, but the future of serious reporting. In a June 28 column, she explains that tighter copyright laws could allow traditional media outlets to own their content for a longer period of time before bloggers and others start posting it on their own sites and pulling readers and advertisers away from the organizations that produced the work in the first place.

Schultz and The Plain Dealer are not the only ones embracing the call for tougher copyright regulations. Cleveland Attorney David Marburger and many newspapers advocate these ramped-up regulations. And while it may be easy to dismiss such attempts as mere self-preservation by what Shultz wryly terms “dinosaurs wheezing toward extinction,” many of the practices of traditional journalism are worth protecting.

Subscribing to this view, Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland introduced legislation in March designed to help newspapers garner non-profit status, allowing them to stay afloat. Both proposals have ignited a firestorm of online chatter and robust debate.

Responding to Shultz’s column, Clint Hendler writes in the Columbia Journalism Review that the proposed copyright tightening is “unworkable, illogical, and unnecessarily legalistic,” and John Temple, the former editor, president and publisher of the late Rocky Mountain News, criticizes Schultz for failing to make a compelling case for how tightening copyright laws will help save newspapers.

And yet he also says the closing of The Rocky Mountain News has had a pronounced negative effect on the community and state it served.  “The watchdog role of the media is being diminished,” Temple says. “There are stories that are never going to be told.” According to Temple, the closing of The Rocky Mountain News is a dramatic reminder about the importance of fostering meaningful innovation that might help the media.

On the other hand, bloggers and citizen journalists might actually help to revitalize traditional media, for if Shultz is correct and traditional journalists begin to feel more empathy with the legions of displaced workers, they might produce more of what we call working-class journalism.

All watchdog journalism is really working-class journalism.  Three principles might characterize this important work:

1.)    Stories rely on multiple sources and treat everyday people with the same weight as official sources;

2.)    Stories show how, ultimately, most political issues are “pocketbook” issues;

3.)    Stories empower everyday citizens by carefully scrutinizing the actions of elected officials and powerful individuals and entities and are produced by journalists brave enough to dispute factual errors and inconsistencies rather than allowing false information to be spouted in the name of “balanced” reporting.

Of course, these principles are not new.  But they were lost as the class and status of the profession shifted. Perhaps, equipped with a renewed mission, empathy, and purpose, journalists might embrace the technology of today, bring to it a sense of urgency and responsibility, and use it to tell important stories effectively.

For instance, many newspapers, including The New York Times, have launched community journalism projects. Some involve hyper-local reporting, while others experiment with new delivery mechanisms. Another new venture is trying to help traditional media organizations earn advertising revenue and understand new business models. Numerous foundations, including the Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation, are funding experimentation in journalism and journalism education.

No single answer is likely to solve the problems currently plaguing the media. Nor will any one business model reverse years of financial declines.  Instead,the media must consider both new ideas and old practices.  These ideas require constructive debate and discussion.  The future of the media is simply too important.

Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco

Taxing Only the Rich CAN Pay for Everything

It’s time for everybody who wants to say anything about “Obamacare” and taxes to tell the rest of us their income class.  I live in one of the 13.5 million households with a six-figure income between $100,000 and $200,000.  I could afford to give back the annual $2,500 tax cut George Bush gave me in 2001 and 2003, but our current president has pledged that he won’t allow my taxes to increase by a single dime.

I thought this was foolish and unfair when candidate Obama promised it, but now I understand why he put himself in this trick box.  My income class serves as a sort of buffer zone to protect the working class from being attacked with taxes on their health insurance and soda pop.  The only way to ever have a discussion about what to do about our rapidly growing income inequality is to leave us, the vast majority of middle-class professionals, harmless.

In the first week of August, the national punditry declared with something like unanimity that, as the New York Times headlined, “Obama’s Pledge to Tax Only the Rich Can’t Pay for Everything, Analysts Say.”  Unanimity among cable news pundits is bad for business, so their agreement on this is particularly striking.  And this leads me to ask: Do the pundits and the “analysts” they cite really not know the numbers or are they consciously or semi-consciously trying to avoid an increase in their taxes?  It would help to know whether they are “rich” by President Obama’s standard – above $200,000 for individuals, $250,000 for families.

One of the few national pundits who routinely admits he’s “a rich guy” is Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, but with a $10 million-a-year salary (not counting his book sales and speaking fees), he’s more like the super-rich – as is Charlie Gibson of ABC News.  I’m wondering what Bill Bennett, Campbell Brown, David Gergen, Gloria Borger, and all the other talking heads who play such an important role in shaping national debates make these days.

And do they have assistants who actually check out what their “analysts” tell them?  I don’t.  I’m a humanities professor who cannot now and never has been able to do algebra, but I use the Statistical Abstract of the United States in teaching numeracy in undergraduate critical-thinking courses.  Table 470 provides interesting information on Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) and taxes by income-class.  An Internal Revenue Service spreadsheet gives more detailed AGI information on taxpayers in 2007.  AGI is income after certain tax deductions(Wikipedia nicely explains what is and is not included). Using these sources, here’s what I learned in about two hours earlier this week.

Of the 143 million U.S. taxpayers (individuals and households), about 4.5 million have AGIs of more than $200,000 a year.  Though only 3% of all taxpayers, this group claims 32% of all AGI – or $2.8 trillion.  They already pay about $600 billion in federal income tax, or about 22% of their incomes.  If this group paid a graduated average of 35% instead, that would add $400 billion to federal revenues every year.  This would leave them with about $1.8 trillion after taxes, which is roughly what two-thirds of all taxpayers (with AGIs of less than $50,000) have before they pay taxes.

All that is being asked of the rich so far is an increase of $97 billion a year — $43 billion by reverting to the pre-Bush top two marginal tax rates, and $54 billion in surtaxes on incomes over $280,000 to pay for health care.  Both these tax increases directly redistribute income from the rich to the working class.  The $43 billion a year is slated to permanently pay for Obama’s Making-Work-Pay tax credit (introduced but not paid for in the two-year stimulus package).  The $54 billion is mostly slated to help low-income workers pay for health insurance.

More will be needed for long-term government investment in green jobs, infrastructure, and education, all of which (along with health care reform) should lead to stronger, more sustained economic growth, which will do more than any other single thing to bring down government deficits and to increase working-class (and middle-class) incomes.  Taxing the rich can provide all that’s needed for even the most ambitious programs proposed so far. The rich are not an inexhaustible source of government tax revenue, but they have a lot to give before the “middle class” will need to be tapped.

That’s the theory, and it deserves to be debated, but it’s hard to believe that the pundits don’t know that there has been a radical redistribution of income from the working class to the rich over the past quarter century.  So in the interests of “transparency” (a middle-class professional term for fessing up), all commentary on paying for Obamacare should include full disclosure of whether the commentator is rich – possibly as a tagline at the bottom of the screen.

What’s more, since the proposed surtax on the rich is especially easy to figure, rich commentators should tell us how much the surtax will cost them.  For example, as currently proposed, Bill O’Reilly will pay an additional $500,000 in income taxes and Charlie Gibson, an extra $380,000.  It would be good to know how lesser pundits would fare, too, as this might help explain why they keep suggesting that President Obama must break his promise not to increase middle-class taxes.

The President won’t break that promise because he is in a trick box of his own crafting.  And there are many analysts out there – all of whom can do algebra and most of whom make less than $200,000 — who would be glad to help reporters and pundits dig into the facts on income and taxes, if they should ever want to.

Jack Metzgar

Obama’s DeLorean?

I know I’ve used the déjà vu/time machine analogy before,  but if Michael J. Fox can make three Back to the Future movies, then I can make a sequel, too.  Every time I read about how the Democrats first pandered to and are now ignoring the needs of the working class, I feel like I just landed back in 1993 after taking a wild ride in Doc Brown’s beat up DeLorean.

Back then, the Clinton administration lost control of the health care reform debate, abandoned its number one promise to labor, and screwed a whole bunch of Mahoning Valley residents who worked for Packard Electric. Clinton’s approval numbers tanked, and Republicans, once thought to be an endangered species, regained power.

Sound eerily familiar?  Today, the Obama administration has lost control of the health care reform debate, abandoned its number one promise to labor, and apparently screwed a whole bunch of Valley residents who used to work for Packard Electric.  The president’s once-phenomenal approval ratings are tanking, and Republicans, pronounced dead less than eight months ago, have risen Lazarus-like from their crypt.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on just to make sure we aren’t really caught in a time warp.  On health care, Mr. Obama is being beaten into the ground by the same right-wing liars who crushed reform in ‘93: Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, the insurance industry, and the AMA.

These guys, along with some new crazies, are recycling the lies they told 16 years ago.  They say we’re headed toward the kind of socialized medicine that (they claim) doesn’t work in Canada, that bureaucrats will interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, that care will be rationed, and that a government worker sitting in a cubicle will decide whether your elderly mother lives or dies.

The fact that none of this is true doesn’t seem to matter any more today than it did in the Clinton era.  Like then, the liars are using paid advertising and talk radio to propagate their fables.  And, like then, people are listening.

The President has responded by conducting town hall meetings where he spends most of his time refuting tall tales.  But that won’t get the job done.  It’s time for the president and the Democratic Party to spend some of the millions in their campaign accounts to mount a counterattack.

The TV and radio ads will be easy to make—just tell people the truth.  Tell them your plan won’t require them to abandon their coverage or their doctor, that bureaucrats working for the profit-hungry insurance industry are already making decisions about their health care, that care’s already rationed, especially if you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who are under or uninsured, and  that we already have socialized medicine.  It’s called Medicare, and it’s kept untold millions of elderly mothers alive since 1965.

Tell the American people all that and do it right now, before members of Congress head home and are verbally assaulted by constituents who haven’t heard the truth.  If you don’t, the reps and senators will return to Washington scared sh—well, we all know how scared they’ll be—and health care reform will be dead.

Now let’s talk about unions.  In another Back to the Future moment, Mr. Obama, like Clinton in ’93, recently abandoned his promise to fight for the enactment of organized labor’s number one priority.  Sixteen years ago the issue was scabs.  During his campaign Clinton had promised to do everything possible to ban the use of permanent replacement workers during labor disputes.  He didn’t.

In 2008, labor’s priority was passage of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act (EFCA) a rewrite of the National Labor Relations Act that would, among other provisions, make card check recognition the law of the land.  This would prevent employers from engaging in the coercion and intimidation that have crippled countless organizing drives over the past two decades.  Obama repeatedly promised to do whatever was necessary to get it done:

We need to stand up to the business lobby that’s been getting their friends in Congress and in the White House to block card check. That’s why I was one of the leaders fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. That’s why I’m fighting for it in the Senate. And that’s why we’ll make it the law of the land when I’m President.

But they haven’t.  In yet another Democratic betrayal of the working class, the card check provision was stripped from the EFCA before it came to a vote in either house.  The president expended zero political capital on the issue.

Which brings us to Delphi-Packard.  At one time approximately 14,000 people worked in the company’s plants in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.  Then Clinton won the NAFTA battle and thousands of Valley residents saw their good-paying jobs head to Mexico.  Thousands of employees agreed to retire early in exchange for enhanced pensions and guaranteed health care benefits.

Guess what happened next.  First, Delphi-Packard went bankrupt.  Then salaried retirees lost their health care.  Then the company dumped its pension obligations on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.  As a result salaried employees will lose the enhanced benefits they were promised, as will thousands of retired hourly employees who had the misfortune of belonging to the IUE, including  most of the company’s workers in the Mahoning Valley.  They will also lose health care benefits.

Ironically, one group of hourly retirees will not face similar cuts: those from the UAW.  In a move designed to facilitate GM’s emergence from bankruptcy by gaining the union’s support for a concession package, Packard workers who were UAW members of  won’t lose a penny of their pensions or their health care benefits.  The IUE asked Mr. Obama’s auto task force to order GM to provide its members with the same supplemental pension and benefit package given to the UAW.  That request was summarily rejected.

It should come as little or no surprise then, that when retirees gathered to protest their fate, many carried signs castigating Obama and told reporters that they would do everything they could to deny him a second term.  Of course, these same workers had made a similar threat about Clinton in ’93.  Maybe Rahm Emanuel and the crew in the West Wing are confident history will repeat itself?  After all, they know that Democratic leaders keep getting away with disrespecting working families and their unions.  And maybe that’s why they were so willing to pit one union against another in order to protect GM?.

By the way, Mr. Obama’s approval numbers: 64% in February, 54% in July.  Was that whoosh I just heard the sound of the air rushing out of his presidency or the whirr of an old DeLorean flying by?

Leo Jennings