Reframing the Public-Sector Worker Debate

In a March 10 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker set the record straight on why he is fighting public unions, and in so doing he evoked a frame that could easily have appeared in any of the many “recession” stories that have proliferated in media over the past few years:

For example, my brother works as a banquet manager at a hotel and occasionally works as a bartender. My sister-in-law works at a department store. They have two beautiful kids. They are a typical middle-class Wisconsin family. At the start of this debate, David reminded me that he pays nearly $800 per month for his family’s health-insurance premium and a modest 401(k) contribution. He said most workers in Wisconsin would love a deal like the one we are proposing.

The example is compelling, and like the countless other similar accounts, it invites readers to ask “Why should ‘they’ have what I don’t have?”

Walker’s “frame” parallels much of the coverage of workers’ issues that, in an earlier post, I criticized for failing to address the complexities and the realities behind the eye-catching and heart-tugging “working class” frames like his.  For example, rather than simply accepting as unassailable inevitability the plight of Walker’s brother, why aren’t we asking why his health-care premiums are so high, or why the important work that he and his wife do to support their family is so undervalued at a time when corporate profits and worker productivity are at all-time highs?

Imagine the impact of a story that, after describing the plight of Walker’s sibling, actually examined the profit margin of the hotel and department store that employ the couple to let readers discern whether or not the couple is being asked to “sacrifice” because their employers are exploiting the recession to squeeze more out of employees.

This lack of information is equally troubling in the portrayal of public school teachers, which often consists of a comparison between the “perks” of the teacher, with those of the private sector. Missing from these stories is the harsh reality that based on the cost of earning and maintaining their credentials, public school teachers are one of the lowest paid groups, according to a CBS Money Watch study.

Moreover, many media too often repeat the easy opposition between taxpayers and public workers, as in a recent Christian Science Monitor piece that sports the headline, “Who Will Win the Battle Between Teachers and Taxpayers?” Too few note that public workers are taxpayers as well, and in many cities, such as Youngstown, these workers pay much of tax burden that keeps city services functioning.

In a smart analysis for, “Really Bad Reporting in Wisconsin: Who Contributes to Public Workers Pensions?” Pulitzer Prize Winning reporter David Cay Johnston explains that public pensions are actually deferred compensation, and he faults “pack” journalists for accepting as gospel the Scott Walker version, without seeking to understand how pension systems actually work.

Johnston’s thoughtful piece reveals the dangers of reporting that, in the rush to get the story out, fails to fully tell the entire story, to dig for the facts. Subscribing to an easy objectivity that equates “balance” with the transcription of spin from both sides of an issue, reporting on the assault on unions has failed to truly inform. I’m reminded here of the late great Molly Ivins, who famously observed that

The very notion that on any given story all you have to do is report what both sides say and you’ve done a fine job of objective journalism debilitates the press…The smug complacency of much of the press—I have heard many an editor say, “Well, we’re being attacked by both sides so we must be right”—stems from the curious notion that if you get a quote from someone on both sides, preferably in an official position, you’ve done the job. In the first place, most stories aren’t two-sided, they’re 17-sided at least. In the second place, it’s of no help to either the readers or the truth to quote one side saying, “Cat,” and the other side saying “Dog,” while the truth is there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes. Getting up off your duff and going to find out for yourself is still the most useful thing a reporter can do.

Ivins’s point was that, in an age of instant news gratification, reporters often are lulled into becoming merely stenographers, recording two sides of every argument, even when the facts clearly prove one side wrong. Too often reporters shy away from this duty because they have been conditioned to avoid what might appear as advocacy journalism at all costs, but in shying away from the duty of fully reporting and even disputing shaky facts cloaked in political hyperbole, we abdicate the all important “watchdog” function of the press.

And the perils of neutering the watchdog press, are today more dubious than ever. Last week, Sherry Linkon and John Russo argued that a coalition is needed to combat the multi-pronged assault on unions and public employees:

We need to build a movement that crosses boundaries – between public- and private-sector unions, the traditional working class of industrial, blue-collar workers and the new working class of retail and service workers, between the working class and the middle class, cities and suburbs, and among diverse types of organizations.

The need for this type of collaboration is clear, but the challenges of achieving it in the current media moment are enormous, and will require much more substantive and thoughtful reporting than has been dominating mainstream coverage to date.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies

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6 Responses to Reframing the Public-Sector Worker Debate

  1. Pingback: Reframing the Public-Sector Worker Debate at Merge Left

  2. Timothy Francisco says:

    Thanks for the comments. One clarification, the “stenographers” phrase came to me from Karl Idsvoog, Journalism Prof at Kent State during a conversation we had recently. I meant to cite this in the blog, and actually thought I had, but finished the draft of this at the airport during a crazy travel day on the red-eye from the West Coast.


  3. Tim Sheard says:

    I read the piece linked from the listserve on journalist’s getting 2 quotes from two sides and acting as stenographers instead of reporters. Where is Izzy Stone when we need him the most? You’d think that with all the social media, a truthful rebuttal to Walker et al would be easy to get out, but I guess competing for ‘net eyeballs is brutal.
    Anyway, hope the topic is covered in June at the WCSA conference, it’s vital. It’s the subject of most of my talks and keynote addresses.
    In solidarity, Tim


  4. Ellen Dannin says:

    I have also been thinking about these issues. There is a great gulf of understanding about the real terms of public sector work and pensions. For example, most people do not know that many public sector workers cannot draw Social Security. As a result, if they lose their pensions, they have nothing to fall back on.

    Here are links to a couple essays that are my effort to add some light to the public discussion of public sector work.

    Of Pensions, and Piggybanks: The Challenges of Ensuring a Secure Retirement January 27, 2011, Employment Policy Research Network / Truthout

    Confronting the Myths About Tenure and Teachers’ Unions December 2011


  5. David Byrne says:

    Here in the UK we have a similar if less overt attack on public sector workers, particularly in relation to pensions. We don’t have the health benefits issue because of the NHS (and the Tory attack on that and attempt to lay the ground for privatization is blowing up in their faces) but the pensions issue is a big thing. Of course pensions are deferred wages and that needs to be said but we have seen the virtual elimination of final salary schemes across the private sector and there is a real effort to demonize the public sector and indeed to count pension liabilities as part of national debt and hence a contributor to the deficit. One thing which works against this is that many households contain both public sector and private sector workers – the nurse married to the electrician, the teacher married to the bank worker – guess the US is much the same. As to press coverage it is bad in the tabloids and the Murdoch press and even the Independent and The Guardian tend to laziness in news pages although their financial pages are much better. For accuracy actually the old Trotskyist instruction to read the Financial Times as the bosses have to know the truth still holds true.


  6. michael lisi says:

    It’s all about getting stories out the fastest and making the splashiest headlines. It’s about getting attention. “Fair and balanced” stories don’t get peoples attention. Telling both sides doesn’t make for interesting stories. Picking a side and hyperbolizing (sp?) that point of view is what sells! Facts that are double and triple checked don’t. Legitimate citations don’t. The new generation of “news” seems to be more flash and less substance, and “services” like twitter aren’t helping. It’s more and more difficult to separate fact from fiction, and when it comes to politics, that’s just the way some folks like it. I’d like to think that opposing and debating against SB5 with facts is the way to go, but I’m just not sure. Many people don’t seem to care about the difference anymore.


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