- Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media
A number of people have written about the invisible coercion of dominant ideological frames that artfully and seamlessly masquerade as common sense. But revealing ideological bullying can seem to fall prey to the very common-sense trick it tries to unmask. Christopher Martin's book, Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media, is a long overdue exploration of the ideological structures behind the rotten labor coverage that passes for objective journalism in the United States. Martin's major assertion—that the air-we-breath ideology of consumerism is the primary narrative structure through which labor and the working class is marginalized—has a compelling enough ring to make it sound as familiar and reassuring as, well, common sense itself.
The basic premise of this book is that the mainstream media are able to sustain a posture of convincing objectivity when covering labor relations by using a consumer orientation to frame stories and coverage. As a result, "the news is often severely critical of labor's actions and enthusiastically supportive of capital's actions," while maintaining a familiar and reassuring "neutrality." Appearing neutral and objective is a vital component in the corporate media's bid for audience credibility and political legitimacy. Against a backdrop of accelerating concentration of media ownership and the rather clear corporatization of information, objectivity remains a powerful hedge against charges of bias and outright propaganda. Reporting on labor from a consumer perspective allows journalists to find a "common ground" narrative between unions and management that seems to work in the interest of an audience and readership that has been well schooled to self-identify as consumers. [End Page 102]
Some of that apparent objectivity arises from the situation that both sides of the equation are given scrutiny within the consumer frame. But the nature of that scrutiny is not in fact really neutral. Certainly there are investigative news reports into business practices that cheat or deceive the consuming public, and these often upset the corporate community enough that they muster their own accusations of news bias. But the consumer point of view guarantees that the critique of a business never passes into a critique of business in general or of the whole edifice of consumer capitalism. The noble role of business as the legitimate creative force behind our economy, meeting the needs of the consuming public, is left intact. Not so for labor. Unions, union activity, and concerted worker action are consistently de-legitimized as impediments to the consumer and the economy. So, although the consumer frame "functions as a strategy to be journalistically 'objective,' it is not an objective or value-free position." Labor, for one, almost always loses out.
Looking at news coverage of top labor stories during the 1990s, Martin identifies five specific consumer-oriented frames that accomplish this sleight of hand by establishing the meaning of events and circumstances in news reports about labor. These basic frames work separately or together as part of the overall consumer narrative to direct and orient public understanding of labor issues and actions. Whatever story details get reported, they are filtered through the consumer prism outlined by these frames. "With such framing, the news media's stories have continually undercut a legitimate social institution—labor unions."
To be sure, it is not just labor that loses out in the consumer frame. Instead of facilitating a public sphere of discovery and rational debate, the news media fosters a consumer sphere that diminishes citizenship to mere purchasing behavior and defines public discourse and action in terms of appropriate consumer behavior. Choice becomes the greatest good—and we have lots of choices. If we don't like something, we can vote with our pocketbooks and that's all that should be necessary to get the point across. This submerges issues of citizenship, political activity, and of course class relations and elevates issues of consumption and the myth of a class-free America.
Martin provides ample evidence of that fact through five excellent case studies that round out the last two...