For Media, 'Class War' Has Wealthy Victims

Rich getting richer seldom labeled as belligerents

During an ABC Nightline
interview on May 21, 2003, host Ted Koppel suggested that his guest was
engaging in "class warfare" by arguing that the wealthy should pay
increased taxes. While the exchange was not unusual--Koppel's use of the
term "class war" to characterize bottom-up or populist economic
rhetoric is the norm--what was unusual was that his guest was the
second-richest man in the world, Warren Buffett. The interview is worth
remembering primarily for Buffett's commonsense response: "Well, I'll
tell you, if it's class warfare, my class is winning."

The brief comment serves as one of the very few prominent admissions
that the class war can go both ways: top-down as well as bottom-up. And
the current degree of economic inequality in the United States backs up
Buffett's claim. In his 2007 book Categorically Unequal, Princeton
sociologist Douglas Massey showed that of all advanced industrial
nations, the U.S. ranks highest in inequality of both income and wealth
distribution. Massey explained (Media Matters, 8/27/07):

Since the mid-1970s, mechanisms in the American
political economy that were enacted in the 1930s to limit
stratification and promote equality have been dismantled and replaced
with new mechanisms that institutionalize exploitation....The rules of
the American political economy were rewritten to favor the rich at the
expense of the middle and lower classes. Unions were weakened, entry-
level wages reduced, access to social protections curtailed,
anti-poverty spending cut back, and taxes on lower-income families were
raised while those on upper-income families were reduced, yielding a
sharp reduction in the size of the welfare state.

These actions--along with many other policies that favor the
wealthy--clearly pit the well-being of one economic class against
another, and yet the media rarely refer to them as "class warfare."
Instead, a new FAIR survey shows that within top national media
outlets, "class warfare" terminology is almost exclusively employed to
characterize as belligerent actions taken on behalf of the non-rich.
The result is a biased national discourse that portrays "class war" as
an ongoing persecution of the wealthy at the hands of the poor and
working class and their populist leaders.

FAIR's study examined every use of the terms "class war," "class warfare" and "class warrior" by the New York Times, Washington Times, Fox News and CNN
over a nine-month period (9/1/08-5/31/09). In 71 percent of the
instances where the term was used, there was a clear indication as to
what types of actions "class war" was meant to describe. In the
remaining 29 percent, the phrase was used more ambiguously, with no
reference to specific instances or policies.

When there was a clear direction implied, the study shows a striking
bias in the use of the "class warfare" label: In all outlets combined,
the phrase was almost 18 times more likely to describe bottom-up
action--rhetoric or policy decisions perceived as benefiting the poor or
lower classes--than it was to describe top-down action (90 percent vs. 5
percent of occurrences).

One might expect any conflict termed a "war" to be covered as a two-way
street, but the outlets only did so in 5 percent of the cases where the
term was employed. Going by media coverage, it is not so much a class
war as it is a class massacre, with a revolutionary rabble siphoning
wealth downward (never mind how the wealth got up there in the first

The bias held across the outlets, but fell into two distinct groups: significantly unbalanced and completely unbalanced. At the New York Times, descriptions of "class warfare" as bottom-up outnumbered top-down descriptions 6-to-1, while at CNN the imbalance was 8-to-1.

The right-wing outlets in our sample, Fox and the Washington Times, never presented "class warfare" as anything other than action taken on behalf of the poor or against the wealthy. Fox was far more vehement in its lopsidedness, however, managing to present this version 40 times, while the Washington Times employed it in 14 articles.

Fox's unbalanced numbers were
dramatically bolstered by commentators Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity,
whose heavily promoted shows were by far the frontrunners regarding
quantity of "class warfare" rhetoric. Together, the two shows accounted
for half of Fox's total bottom-up references.

All outlets surveyed were most likely to feature accusations of
bottom-up "class warfare" in quotes from sources (54 percent of such
references) or in commentators' opinion (35 percent), with just 11
percent of such references being made in a news reporter's own voice.

Bottom-up "class warfare" references suggest that lower economic
classes are openly hostile and irrational, seeking the destruction of
the rich even to the ruin of the nation. The upper class is at such
great risk, it seems, that they are reminded in a New York Times
op-ed (3/25/09): "The system works badly if the poor, always a
majority, feel the rich are getting a good deal unfairly. But if the
rich show moderation, class warfare is less of a threat to economic
development." In other words, the rich must hide their wealth not only
for their own sake, but for the sake of the nation's overall economy,
which can be jeopardized by an acquisitive majority.

The Washington Times (10/9/08)
went so far as to suggest that the economic system itself is unfairly
biased against the rich, and that average Americans need to correct the
injustice; after all,

U.S. corporations are taxed at one of the
highest rates of the world's industrialized nations, second only to
Japan. This issue still resonates with Americans if it is explained
clearly and powerfully, but it must be tied to Mr. Obama's inexperience
and his irrational class warfare hostility toward corporations and

Fox News host Glenn Beck (3/3/09)
issued the American lower class a similarly stern warning: "You don't
want to go on class warfare because...when you go global, the poorest
person in America is still some of the wealthiest 2 percent in the
world. We are the rich. We're the ones that the rest of the world is
going to come and take our wealth." (Actually, the richest 10 percent
of individuals in the world have incomes greater than $25,000 a
year-which is obviously much more than the "poorest person in America"
makes, given that a minimum wage job pays $15,000 a year.)

Beck seemed to fear that the U.S. poor would get a taste of the
persecution that comes with being a millionaire; as Beck's colleague
Sean Hannity reminded us (Fox,
3/12/09), "It may not mean a lot to people that like class warfare, but
there's 27 percent fewer millionaires now in America than there was
last year."

News coverage during this time period was not devoid of critical
references to top-down action and policies. On the contrary, there was
substantial discussion of the bank bailouts as a policy which unfairly
aided the rich at the expense of the rest. However, such coverage
rarely employed "class warfare" rhetoric. Only three articles could be
found in the study period that referred to bank bailouts as top-down
"class warfare."

Top-down action and sentiment also increased recently as a response to
the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), legislation aimed at
easing the process of workplace unionization. Anti-labor sentiments are
often boldly class-conscious, such as those of Lee Scott, the former
CEO of Wal-Mart, who declared that "we like driving the car, and we're
not going to give the steering wheel to anybody," or Bernard Marcus,
former CEO of Home Depot, who said of the anti-unionization movement,
"If a retailer has not gotten involved with this, if he has not spent
money on this... he should be shot" (Wall Street Journal,
11/19/08). However, few such comments are characterized as "class
warfare" by the media in the manner progressive comments often are.

It's a long-standing trend: In a study of nine top media outlets from January 1995 through July 2000, Extra! (1-2/01)
found that references to "class war" were seven times more likely to
describe bottom-up than top-down actions. When Diane Sawyer, in a PrimeTime Live
interview with a group of teenage mothers, referred to beneficiaries of
the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program as "public enemy
No. 1" (ABC, 2/16/95; Extra!, 5-6/95),
or when then-House Majority Whip Tom Delay said, "Organized labor is
part of the extremist, left-wing clique that is destroying this
country" (Newsday, 8/18/00), little
suggestion was made in the media that either was waging "class war,"
despite their robust rhetoric and top-down policy advocacy.

Using "class warfare" rhetoric to describe actions in favor of the poor
and lower class, while using less pejorative language to describe
top-down actions, raises more than a question of balance; that the
"class war" is reported as waged nearly exclusively from the bottom up
is an indication of corporate media's own place in the economic

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