There’s a reason the NYT’s Upshot ran more stories on reclining airplane seats than on payday lending
The media is biased, but not in the way most commentators think. By focusing on whether the media is harder on Republicans or Democrats, we’ve missed a more important bias: toward things that matter to the rich. This bias, by linking the state of the economy to how the rich are performing, ends up benefiting Republican candidates.
Media are subject to a deep availability bias: They write about the things they know and things that interest them and the people who surround them. This ends up giving coverage an upper-class tinge. To take a few examples, consider the long battle over reclining airplane seats, which garnered three full Upshot stories (with Uber getting at least six). Meanwhile, Upshot has done scant, if any, coverage on payday lending, employer credit checks, abusive scheduling, the desperate state of American pensions and the rise in abusive “rent to own” selling. It sounds almost impossible, but Upshot has published more stories on airplane seating than predatory payday lending. This isn’t entirely a critique of the Upshot; it’s delivering content that its readers are interested in. An editor might be hard-pressed to devote large amounts of space, even online, to stories that affect very few of its readers. The result is often stark, however, like the New York Times’ cutting its race beat at a time of deep racial turmoil, while continuing to report on the housing whims of the rich (and the ideal way for them to reduce pesky arm fat).
More concretely, journalists will often use the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the S&P 500 as shorthand for the state of the economy. This is misleading, however, since the richest 10 percent of Americans control 83 percent of financial assets. More than 50 percent of Americans don’t own any stock, and are therefore unaffected by the stock market.
Imagine an alternative universe in which the health of the economy was determined by wage growth for the middle class, rather than the stock portfolios of the wealthy. Further, reporters and wonks tend to rely on unemployment rate, while ignoring the fact that it excludes things like discouraged workers and the underemployed. In addition, the raw unemployment rate obscures deep class and racial divisions in unemployment. For instance, Jesse Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith write that “teenage black high-school dropouts from poor families” face an unemployment rate of 95 percent. The rate of unemployment for black Americans is regularly double what it is for whites. As Reniqua Allen writes, African-American men are “stuck in a permanent recession.”