The Media Problem We Don’t Talk About

6 months ago Matthew Taylor

On the face of it, there’s nothing especially novel about the current trend of distrust toward mass media in the U.S. The grievances (news beholden to corporate interests, ratings driving profit, etc.) are more or less the same as they’ve been for decades, with the occasional detail (e.g. Macedonian teens getting rich off of sensational clickbait) that is unmistakably particular to this moment. What’s noteworthy, then, is just how prevalent criticisms and wariness have become.

Americans’ trust in the media “to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly” hit an all-time low in Gallup polling history last fall. This was half a year after footage of Donald Trump’s empty podium prior to an appearance got more screen time across networks than Bernie Sanders’ speech on the same night (even though the Sanders event drew a larger crowd). But it was also a few months before the proliferation of headlines and discussions about “fake news,” which has already exhausted its brief lifespan as a potentially useful term, having evolved now to mean “news that I don’t like.”

Topics like these have become such a prominent feature of the national discourse that the news itself has begun to tell us that we don’t trust the news. This is unusual, since mass media rarely becomes its own subject—at least not beyond quips and surface critiques that (deliberately) never get to the foundational issues of the actual industry and media ecosystem. Reflecting publicly upon itself is, after all, antithetical to one of the central projects of mass media, which is to naturalize its own biases and parameters by obscuring their existence.

Yet despite the amplification of numerous valid and necessary criticisms, there is at least one important issue conspicuously absent from most of these conversations. That is the unjustifiably low (or nonexistent) pay and job protections for journalists and others involved more broadly with editorial and “creative” work in the media industry. (This article will be focusing primarily on journalists, but the conditions are similar for many others in related media fields.) This is detrimental not only to writers themselves, but also to the project of cultivating media outlets that adequately identify, speak to, and analyze the range of issues facing our country and our world.

Barriers To Entry

Trying to eke out a dignified living as a writer is notoriously difficult. Staff writer or editor positions, with the attendant benefits and job security, are increasingly rare. Instead, most journalists take on freelance gigs with multiple clients. That entails higher tax rates, irregular paychecks, no job protections, and variable pay rates that often give jobs to the writers willing to work for the least money in a ‘bid to the bottom’ model (if they even pay at all).

Our contemporary conceptions of work have eroded the notion that the principal function of a job is to earn income to help meet our material needs. Jobs are not understood to be discrete from the realization of self or identity. Dominant neoliberal ideology has conflated career with sense of purpose, in essence elevating jobs as not just a means of making money but also as the primary avenue through which we define ourselves.

Writers in particular are presumed to have an affinity for their craft. Unfortunately, this is weaponized against them; if you “enjoy” or “have passion” for your work, our cultural narrative insists that pay should be a lesser concern. More important is the potential to “realize your passion” and “become your best self” and other such infuriating platitudes, all through your work (which, as a happy byproduct, makes money for your boss or client).

Successful people in creative fields, we are told, don’t fixate on money but are instead grateful for “exposure” and “mentorship,” all of which can be distilled down to an expectation that writers should be thankful for the opportunity to work for free, earning money for a company or client but getting minimal material compensation themselves. In the freelance world, clients even sometimes act as though it is a personal affront to inquire about payment.

The following tweet and the attached email screenshots are an example unfortunately familiar to many writers; when journalist Brittany Stalburg asked whether the New Haven Register would pay her for a piece of hers that they had accepted, the editor responded in an email by saying, “No, we do not pay for opeds [sic] and quite frankly, with the mention of money, I will not run it now.”

Nowhere is this sort of toxic ideology more blatantly evident than in the realm of the unpaid internship. Internships are presented as “learning experiences,” a phrase consisting of two words that should be regarded with great skepticism in this context. According to the prevailing narrative, the intern is the benefactor, undergoing an apprenticeship of sorts. And of course, since jobs are not just jobs but are also the defining feature of our identity, the intern experience is also one of individual development, of self-actualization even…and why should anyone get paid to find their their true purpose in life?

Naturally, this fails to arouse much excitement in people who are struggling to muster gratitude and enthusiasm while realizing that they can’t both pay their rent and eat every day that month. Less so with each confirmation of the nagging suspicion that your boss sees your writing as valuable only insofar as it can generate more ad revenue, that you are indeed being exploited under the guise of developing as a professional and an individual.

All of these conditions conspire to create a media industry with very prohibitive barriers to entry and difficult working conditions. Most young people who are able to cobble together a career in journalism and media have financial security by some other means, whether that’s a well-off family or a partner working in a more lucrative field that can subsidize their career. People with no sort of safety net—no matter how good they are at writing—often cannot materially manage to pursue journalism or media as viable careers. And when they do, their situation tends to remain highly precarious.

Because this isn’t just a temporary issue for people establishing new careers (not that it would be excusable if that were the case). Roqayah Chamseddine, an established writer and co-host of the excellent leftist podcast Delete Your Account, recently tweeted about her own struggle to get the payment she was owed from an invoice she sent long ago:

Media whose ideological stance is progressive or even far left often isn’t exempt from perpetuating these same issues. This presents a disheartening contradiction in which the media whose content supports workers and their struggles treats its own writers (who produce that content and thereby create value) quite poorly.

Mother Jones magazine exemplifies this issue. Mother Jones  is not a far left publication by any stretch of the imagination, and under the guidance of current Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery it has become even more centrist, rarely espousing anything left of the tenets and viewpoints of mainstream U.S. liberalism.

But it is named after a legendary female labor organizer and socialist, and its pages have certainly advocated for organized labor. Yet it was only in February of this year that, under pressure, it began to pay its editorial fellows minimum wage. Even this victory must be qualified, taking into consideration the fact that Mother Jones is headquartered in San Francisco, an obscenely expensive city where minimum wage doesn’t get a person very far.

It is clear that these conditions are restrictive in terms of who can even enter the world of media and harmful to those who manage to do so. But the media industry is also uniquely positioned in terms of the role it plays in determining our society’s access to information and the dominant narratives that inform our cultural understanding of what is real and possible. The material conditions outlined above, therefore, are damaging not only to individual writers but also to our society as a whole.

Media, Society, And Ideology

First, a couple of caveats. I am not claiming that journalists with a middle or upper class background are incapable of producing good work on class struggle or poverty. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most journalists writing for influential leftist publications are from comfortable backgrounds, and much of their work is excellent and admirable.

Also, of course, not all media professionals are trust funders. Some don’t have the luxury of being subsidized with money from family or partners. Most of those people, however, are forced to resort to desperate measures like eating out of dumpsters, and healthcare is almost certainly out of the question. The industry as a whole disincentivizes people without class privilege from considering it as a viable field.

So the problem is most usefully understood as a systemic problem. Media is a field in which people for whom basic material needs are not a concern can most easily thrive and become the dominant voices. As leftists, we should be fighting the reproduction and dissemination of comfortable middle and upper class common sense; yet this is the perspective that flourishes under the current conditions.

Issues of diversity and representation in the workplace are especially vital in the media industry. It plays a singular role in determining which information and events warrant our society’s attention, and it establishes the analytical frameworks and sets of facts we have for understanding and contextualizing them. A media that takes seriously this responsibility and acts upon it in good faith should seek to be polyphonic, featuring an array of voices to speak and write on various issues.

We must understand diversity efforts as beneficial not only for the individuals who might otherwise be discriminated against, but also for society as a whole. Certain perspectives are critical for sufficiently understanding an issue. This is not to say that the media should instrumentalize people’s voices, reducing them to only one aspect of their identity and letting them write only on issues that seem pertinent to it (to tokenize them, essentially). Rather, the point is that certain voices are wholly inadequate for addressing certain topics.

Male journalists shouldn’t be the preeminent voices in the conversation about women’s reproductive rights, for example. And white voices shouldn’t presume expertise on the persistent issues of systemic racism that continue to threaten so many lives. Some imperceptive critics deride this as “identity politics” or as a way of “policing” who can talk about what issue, but that misses the point entirely. People privileged and imbued with certain power by institutions and societal structures cannot speak as meaningfully about forms of oppression that they themselves do not experience. On the Left, media outlets that still feature predominantly white, male voices are criticized, and rightfully so.

Efforts around workplace diversity tend to focus on race and gender, both of which are absolutely critical. Yet the conversation less frequently includes class background. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone…Americans, even those who fashion themselves activists, are notoriously class-averse. But the Left should be more vigilant about this.

Class background, after all, is one of the most determinative elements of a person’s position in society. People who have lived through poverty have different perspectives than those who haven’t. Race and gender also greatly affect the way a person experiences poverty (or wealth, for that matter) but they aren’t the only facets that matter; by themselves, they are necessary but not sufficient considerations. And, as investigative journalist Shane Bauer observes, “Most working class people in America are people of color. The class barrier to entry has lots to do with why journalism is so white.”

People with the external financial support that allows them to live comfortably while working unpaid internships and underpaid jobs or freelance contracts should not be the main voices writing about poverty, labor struggles, and the working class’ sense of disenfranchisement. Their understanding of working class life is always necessarily mediated through secondhand stories, data, or deeply flawed mass cultural representations.

And the journalists whose quality of life hinges entirely on the money they earn as writers shouldn’t be struggling constantly to make ends meet and chase down payment from unreliable clients. These conditions are needlessly draconian and unconducive to putting out good work.

Perhaps if the media featured more people who come from impoverished parts of the country where people either don’t bother to vote or can be more easily persuaded toward Right politics in spite of the Right’s open disdain for the poor, the news and the pundit classes wouldn’t have done such a woefully awful job predicting the 2016 presidential election.

Instead, the increasingly technocratic mainstream media relied on data and polling, which it seems determined to tout as infallible no matter how many times it’s proven otherwise. Polls and data are presumed to be ‘neutral,’ owing to the presumption that numbers and facts represent reality ‘as it truly is’, unadulterated by hidden agendas. A good journalist, then, is supposed to be able to select and interpret data to draw the correct conclusions, which are themselves understood to be neutral. As if neutrality is just one among a set of concrete, measurable skills that can be taught to a journalist, and as though people who have learned this nebulous skill don’t bring their own backgrounds and biases to bear on a situation.

But ideology ultimately determines and shapes every narrative as well as the selection and presentation of data—and even the way that polling questions are structured and issues are framed. It’s just more difficult to perceive these biases, as they are veiled (albeit remarkably poorly much of the time) and in accord with the cultural consensuses that they both help to produce and fall under the influence of. Most people are unaware of dominant ideology as such, since it plays a key role in constructing our most fundamental assumptions about the scope of the real and the possible, our material conditions and social relations.

The people who can most readily discern the ideology implicit in what is supposedly neutral and natural are the people for whom the status quo has not worked out well. Quite often, this means people who have had firsthand experiences with poverty. Of course this flies in the face of the prevailing notions that define the pompously-named “empirical journalism” (which, for the record, has shown to be far from empirically sound).

When the media industry privileges writers whose position in the class hierarchy makes them benefactors of the current system and its configurations of power, they will reinforce the narratives that already exist. If an entire class background is excluded from journalism, journalism itself (and therefore society at large) suffers.

The goal of the Left should be to work toward a media that challenges rather than reproduces current societal structures and hegemony as we know it. A media that contests the current common sense by offering not only data but persuasive arguments and counter-narratives. This means that we need to fight for fair pay for journalists and media professionals so that the class barriers to entry are eliminated. That includes being vigilant of for-profit leftist media that does not compensate its writers adequately and calling on them to do so. As much as possible, we should embody the principles that we fight for.

Critical, thoughtful journalism and media are a crucial element of emancipatory struggle; the people who bring them into being should benefit materially from their work.

Featured Image Credit: Jon S. via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.