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The Real Working Class Is Invisible to the Media

The media doesn’t talk much about working-class America. But when it does, it mainly has one thing to say about it: that it’s entirely white, male, and very right-wing. All those things are lies.

Striking McDonald's restaurant employees lock arms in an intersection in Los Angeles, CA. David McNew / Getty Images

A particular image of the worker — generally white, male, and employed in the manual trades — has been a recurring idiom of Americana for at least a century. It’s revealing, given this ubiquity, that since 2016 the white male worker has also become a persistent object of media fascination and puzzlement: the central character in a seemingly endless deluge of newspaper reports and longform essays in which metropolitan journalists depart their coastal havens for exotic safaris into the hinterland, intent on discovering and investigating “working class Americans” (who are often, incorrectly, depicted as implicitly white and male) in their natural habitats.

As the University of Iowa’s Christopher R. Martin notes at the outset of his forthcoming book No Longer Newsworthy, “Who are these people?” fast became the anguished cry of major media outlets in the wake of Donald Trump’s shock 2016 election victory — and the subject of a whole genre aimed at providing a primarily middle-class readership with a neat and compelling answer. But, he argues, such attention should not be misconstrued as earnest concern or a renewed interest in the working class as such. The really existing working class — vast and diverse — in fact remains largely invisible, except as a reductive caricature opportunistically invoked by politicians and media elites.

This is the thesis of Martin’s effort in media criticism, which charts the press’s persistent erasure and misrepresentation of America’s working-class majority and the gradual transformation of the journalistic lexicon into a language virtually indistinguishable from that of management, capital, and the bipartisan neoliberal consensus.

Central to this story is the decline of labor reporting, once a mainstay of major dailies. Today, by contrast, as Martin puts it: “A conference gathering of labor/workforce beat reporters from the country’s leading newspapers could fit into a single booth at an Applebee’s.” Of the country’s top twenty-five newspapers, he notes, a majority no longer covers the workplace/labor beat on a full-time basis, and the landscape for such reporting appears to be even bleaker on television (one 2013 survey cited by Martin, for example, reveals that only 0.3 percent of network TV news in the years 2008, 2009, and 2011 covered labor issues).

Much of the book is concerned with accounting for this decline, which, for the author, is both the result of conscious political effort and a myopic shift in the business model embraced by major newspapers. The former argument is fairly non-controversial, though illustrated in great detail via (among other things) a careful examination of the rhetoric around workers and labor used by various presidents, and the news media’s increasingly pro-corporate framing of jobs and economic issues. As to how a changing business model has served to disempower and erase the American working class, Martin posits that a shift in the 1960s and 1970s towards an advertising model aimed at an upscale middle-class readership is the primary culprit. With the rise of television, the newspaper industry grew ever more consolidated and concerned with addressing and reflecting the interests and lifestyles of a predominantly middle-class audience. In Martin’s words:

[In] this new vision of how a newspaper should serve its community, the newspapers and their corporate owners only wanted the right kind of readers, those who were ‘well-to-do’, ‘affluent moderns’, ‘influentials’, and people with plenty of ‘effective buying power’ and ‘giant-sized household incomes’. Nearly every newspaper began publicizing their readership as if they were the children of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon: all above average.

As a consequence, he argues, the entire language of the news media began to shift: the labor beat gave way to lifestyle and consumer-oriented content; workers became “employees,” engaged not in collective action but in the individualized aspirational culture encouraged by neoliberal capitalism — no longer participating in economic affairs as active subjects but instead “hailed” (in the author’s words) as “passive objects” in a system of private enterprise directed by entrepreneurs and CEOs.

The erasure and disempowerment of workers as a class contributed to another significant development in the American media landscape explored in Martin’s narrative, namely the rise of populist conservative outlets able to capture the market niche vacated by major newspapers by trading in faux anti-elitism and cultural politics. This is not, he stresses, to be mistaken for actual representation of the working class, which is considerably more diverse (in both the ideological and demographic senses) than implied by the white, male, conservative caricature usually invoked by the right-wing media.

Some of the book’s most interesting moments involve detailed case studies showing the media’s treatment of the working class at its best and worst: a 1941 New York transit strike, for example, during which the New York Times largely centered the contract dispute between workers and their employer in its reporting — contrasted with examples from decades later showcasing the way newspapers now tend to focus on how labor actions affect consumers and cause inconvenience for members of the middle class.

Another important case study involves the media’s treatment of (then-president-elect) Trump’s visit to a Carrier facility in Indiana, which mostly overlooked the diversity of the plant’s workforce and the efforts of United Steelworkers Local 1999 to prevent jobs from being outsourced. As Martin puts it:

The national news organizations that covered the Carrier story did so mainly from a political perspective. These Carrier workers were the working class, blue collar, Middle America, white male breadwinners who were Trump’s voter base . . . The news media’s general focus on white male Carrier workers as subjects denied the fact that the Carrier workers were far more diverse in terms of gender, race, and politics than the role they were given in the story (as white, male, ardent Trump supporters).

Even when ostensibly given media attention, then, the working class was essentially reduced to caricature: invoked primarily to bolster a post-election narrative favored by political and media elites.

As with any history so vast and detailed, parts of Martin’s story beg irritating (and, given the book’s scope, largely semantic) questions of cause and effect. How much weight, for example, do we afford the print media’s commercial turn in the 1970s versus the decades-long march to the right in American politics and culture that took off under Reagan? How much of a role did the growing invisibility of the working class play in enabling the wider political shift, or was it itself more a consequence of politics and shifting material conditions (such as the decline of union density or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs)?

These may be questions worth investigating, but they need not distract from the insightful commentary offered in No Longer Newsworthy — at once an important work of Trump-era criticism and an urgently needed condemnation of a media culture that persistently erases and misrepresents the lives and concerns of America’s diverse working-class majority.