Majority Versus Elite Priorities

The New York Times had a very good front page article on October 28 by Stephen Greenhouse entitled “A Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and Shift.”  The piece features the steady increase in part-time employment in the retail and hospitality businesses. This development has contributed to the loss of a million full-time jobs since 2006, while adding 500,000 part-timers. The part-timers are in what has long been called a “shape-up system,” which has advanced with the help of improved business software that forecasts business volume each day, and allows the managers to schedule the part-timers day-by-day, and even within days.  And they must be ready for these in-day calls. This is, of course, like the famous and widely emulated Toyota “just-in-time” supply system, here applied to the more intensive commodification of labor, although admittedly not new there also.

A large number of the part-timers would like more work, and ultimately full-time work—in fact, an estimated 8.3 million of them seek more work (Catherine Rampell, “U.S. Adds 171,000 Jobs, More Than Estimated,” NYT, November 3, 2012).  Greenhouse recounts the experiences and frustrations of several such workers (he and his associates interviewed 40). They note that when there are substantial bulges in the need for workers today the business-alert companies will now hire a batch of additional part-timers, although the existing workers may be doing a good job and expressly want more work. But the managers explain that the shape-up system keeps costs down and enhances “efficiency”—benefits are avoided or kept low, fresher part-timers are less tired on the job.

It is not till the 34th paragraph that Greenhouse mentions the “decline of  union power” as a factor explaining the enlarging shape-up system, quoting University of Chicago’s Susan Lambert, who also makes the explicit point that unions “set a standard for what a real job was—Monday through Friday with full-time hours….We’ve moved away from that.” And Greenhouse later cites labor advocate Carrie Gleason on how “We’re seeing more and more that the burden of market fluctuations is being shifted onto workers, as opposed to the companies absorbing it themselves,” but Greenhouse balances this with some further business representatives’ statements on the improved efficiency and worker “enthusiasm” advantages of the on-call part-timers system.

This is a good article and we must give the NYT credit for publishing it. But the article itself somewhat buries that relevant context of the decline of union power, and there is no deeper context provided such as the actual and intensified war on labor, the politics of that war, its class war characteristics, with the decline in legal protections of union membership and organizing activities and the growth and deployment of union-busting and -avoiding specialists, its recent and ongoing display in the political and “reformer-philanthropists” privatization and anti-teachers-union campaign, and its link to the growth of income and wealth inequality.

We should also consider the loneliness of this article, in light of the human importance of its subject matter.  With 8.3 million part-timers who want full-time work, and, of course, another 6 million or more looking for any kind of work (the estimate given in the Rampell article), isn’t this a subject that demands repeated attention and lots of editorial backup?

Maybe as much attention as the NYT gives the Iran “threat”?  The contrast here is dramatic.  I haven’t counted the NYT articles and editorials on the unemployment situation, but I’m confident that they are not in the same class as those devoted to Iran’s nuclear program.  In a forthcoming article on the Iran threat, David Peterson and I found that in the ten year period from July 1 2002 to June 30 2012, the NYT had over 3,000 items on Iran’s nuclear program, including 231 editorials, 89 or more devoted exclusively to that subject.  (Herman and Peterson, “The Iran ‘Threat’ in a Kafkaesque World,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 2012.)  Now this is taking a subject seriously, but it is a pretty case of attention focused on  a  matter of interest to a small elite (including AIPAC and its supporters), and, in fact, a manufactured threat very much like that of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” also covered intensively and misleadingly by the NYT in 2002-2003.

By contrast, the part-time (and full-time) unemployment problem is a real threat and one of acute importance to millions of U.S. citizens; in fact, the great majority. Thus despite the high quality of Greenhouse’s article we must keep our praise in perspective. Isolated articles like his, with limited context, indignation and editorial support, won’t make this an urgent priority, and will not arouse the public and force the hand of politicians. But the frenzied focus on Iran can do that.

The NYT did have an editorial on November 3 entitled “Jobs Are Growing, Not Stagnating,” but it never mentions unions, or class warfare techniques applied to labor and part-timers. It is an Obama supportive editorial, contrasting his more-or-less expansionary policies with those of Romney. It says that Obama’s employment agenda “includes school and infrastructure rebuilding and aid to states to hire teachers.”  It doesn’t mention his support of Charter Schools and unremitting testing and his failure to support the Chicago teachers strike in September.  This is not an editorial follow-up on Greenhouse and the part-timer-unemployment crisis, but a political pitch for the leader who has not delivered on his promises to his union supporters and base.

In another dramatic case of selectivity that serves elite interests and is essentially just building majority support for elite programs, we can consider the attention given the Taliban shooting and injuring the Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai, and the inattention given to the  large number of  killings of children in Afghanistan and Pakistan resulting from drone warfare. The Malala attack was despicable and justly condemned, but so were the scores of  drone-based injuries and deaths.  The difference in attention is surely that in the Malala case blame attaches to the enemy, the Taliban, whereas in the drone case, the attackers were U.S. forces.

Malala’s shooting was front page news in the NYT, with a picture of the victim and lead article by Declan Walsh, “Taliban Gun Down a Girl Who Spoke Up for Rights” (October 10, 2012). On the following day there was another article by Walsh on “Pakistanis Unite in Outrage Over Girl’s Shooting by Taliban,” with a large accompanying photo of grieving women in “A Show of Support.”  Then two days further along the paper supplied another front page picture, this time of a Pakistani boy with the picture heading “Prayers and Tears for a Wounded Girl” (October 13, 2012). This was by no means the end of photos and articles on the Malala case. In fact, through October 28 the NYT had  14 articles, including three items on the editorial page, on the Malal case.

In the midst of this series the NYT ran an article by Alissa J. Rubin on “3 Children Die in Afghan Strike by NATO-Led Coalition” (October 18, 2012).  This article was on page A12, had no pictures, and the children were unnamed. The article stresses the “coalition’s”  claim of  “deep regret” for this incident and its taking of “full responsibility for what occurred.”  Most of the article is devoted to a discussion of Taliban actions in the strike area and coalition policy designed to protect civilians.  But Rubin and the NYT couldn’t find people grieving or indignant or anything else to humanize the victims or condemn the killings as outrageous.

In Pakistan itself, many children have been victimized by “coalition” warfare. The September 2012 report  Living Under Drones (jointly issued by the Stanford Law School and the NYU School of Law) claims that the children in the target areas are traumatized and living in fear, and many have been killed or injured.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at the City University of London, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone killed between 2,593 and 3,370  persons from 2004 through October 2012, and between 475 and 885 civilians,  and 176 children. (See the webpage devoted to “Covert War on Terror—The Data,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with continuous updates.   But the NYT has yet to find this report newsworthy (as of November 5).

A qualification here: there have been two NYT Blog articles addressing “Living Under Drones,” one by the  print edition regular Scott Shane, who found the drone report impressive (“Report Cites High Civilian Toll in Pakistan Drone Strikes,” September 25, 2012).  But still, 14 entries on the Malala case in the more widely read and important print edition, none there on a detailed report on drone warfare that killed possibly 176 children. We are back to the concepts of “worthy and unworthy victims.” We may recall that the NYT had more articles on the 1984 killing of  priest Jerzy Popieluszko by the Communist government of Poland than they did for 100 religious killed in U.S. client states in Latin America, 1964-1985 (see Manufacturing Consent, Table 2-1). The bias ratio is higher here (176-1), but the political basis of selective attention  and indignation is unchanged.

So is the finding of outrage in Pakistan. Hostility to the United States has grown remarkably in the last few years of the drone war, a Pew study recently indicating that 74 percent of Pakistanis regard the United States as an enemy..  But while the NYT can write that “Pakistanis Unite in Outrage Over Girl’s Shooting by Taliban,” those children’s deaths, traumatization, and the poll-indicated hostility to the United States does not yield articles or editorials about Pakistanis “uniting in outrage”  at “coalition” violence.

In a recent article in the London Guardian entitled “The victims of Fallujah’s health crisis are stifled by Western silence” (October 25, 2012), Ross Caputi states that “Ever since two major US-led assaults destroyed the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004, Fallujans have witnessed dramatic increases in rates of cancers, birth defects and infant mortality in their city. Dr Chris Busby, the author and co-author of two studies on the Fallujah health crisis, has called this ‘the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied’.”

Caputi points out that “four new studies on the health crisis in Fallujah have been published in the last three months. Yet, one of the most severe public health crises in history, for which the US military may be to blame, receives no attention in the United States.”

It should not surprise people that through November 5, the NYT has yet to mention any of these studies of the Fallujah victims. After all, it is very unlikely that the Volkischer Beobachter reported on casualties in Guernica back in the late 1930s.

•  Article first appeared in Z Magazine December 2012

Edward S. Herman is an economist and media analyst with a specialty in corporate and regulatory issues as well as political economy and the media. Read other articles by Edward.