It almost seems cliché to critique America’s paper of record, The New York Times, for framing its political and economic coverage in neoliberal terms. The Times has faced this criticism for almost as long as it’s dishonestly claimed to be “objective,” with perhaps the most prominent critique from the left coming from Professors Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in the book (and later film) “Manufacturing Consent.”
The right regularly takes the Times to task for anti-conservative bias (both real and imagined) and even friendlier critics like Media Professor Jay Rosen express dismay that the Times and other establishment outlets continue to use the pretense of “The view from nowhere.”
So, at risk of being cliché, let me just detail how problematic the Times’ framing is when covering contemporary US politics using the example of a story by Nick Confessore on the background of Illinois’ current governor and his patrons.
The story lays out a litany of data points demonstrating that a group of very rich people organized an electoral project to take over the governorship of Illinois in order to pursue a plutocratic agenda. Unfortunately, though the story spews numerous factoids, it offers no analytical framework to make sense of that information or understand the overarching dynamics driving it.
Class, a notion long understood before Karl Marx, never comes into the picture as a natural antagonism between Governor Bruce Rauner and his backers and the larger public. The word itself never even appears. The Times almost seems amazed that the 1% hold the same beliefs and would pursue a common agenda:
The rich families remaking Illinois are among a small group around the country who have channeled their extraordinary wealth into political power, taking advantage of regulatory, legal and cultural shifts that have carved new paths for infusing money into campaigns…
Most of them lean Republican; some are Democrats. But to a remarkable degree, their philosophies are becoming part of a widely adopted blueprint for public officials around the country: Critical of the power of unions, many are also determined to reduce spending and taxation, and are skeptical of government-led efforts to mitigate the growing gap between the rich and everyone else.
Remarkable? They are plutocrats, why wouldn’t they like the idea of undermining unions and progressive government policies? Wouldn’t it be more remarkable if they collectively fought for a blueprint that did not advance their interests?
The Times seems even more surprised that when the plutocrats were surveyed by researchers from Northwestern University [PDF], they shared a common right-wing view of how society should be organized and ruled. Almost like, dare I say, they had a sense of their class:
Their replies were striking. Where merely affluent Americans are more likely to identify as Democrats than as Republicans, the ultrawealthy overwhelmingly leaned right. They are far more likely to raise money for politicians and to have access to them; nearly half had personally contacted one of Illinois’s two United States senators.
Where the general public overwhelmingly supports a high minimum wage, the one percent are broadly opposed. A majority of Americans supported expanding safety-net and retirement programs, while most of the very wealthy opposed them. And while Americans are not enthusiastic about higher taxes generally, they feel strongly that the rich should pay more than they do, and more than everyone else pays.
Striking? Since when have plutocrats liked unions, social programs, or paying taxes? The history of the union movement is covered in blood with social programs and progressive taxation only coming to fruition after a large mobilization of the lower classes.
How can you tell the story about money and politics in America without that historical context? The framing by the Times makes it appear that the phenomenon of the wealthy in Illinois and throughout the country buying political influence and aligning with a common agenda is somehow novel — that struggle is as old as the country itself.
With the classless frame the Times uses for this story, the assembled facts are not so much marshaled to present a coherent vision of the world as tossed into the air like confetti with a shrug. Presenting such a pointless and fragmentary story about money and politics serves none but the entrenched plutocratic elite who are already reaping the benefits from an atomized and precarious 99%. The reader may learn some facts, but is hardly informed about what is going on in her country.