Rigged Economy Reinforced by Rigged Media Coverage

The Case of Wisconsin Media Coverage of the Overtime Rule

By Robert Kraig, executive director

I don’t often complain about Wisconsin media coverage of major issues. Citizen Action staff and members who ask me to do so from time to time are well aware of my resistance to pressuring reporters for more or better coverage.

I am mindful that journalists have a job to do that is different than that of a social justice advocate. Also, because of changes for the worse in corporate media, there are fewer and fewer reporters to seriously cover issues, making the job much harder, and creating less depth of coverage and many more gaps.

Despite my inclination to give reporters the benefit of the doubt, I was floored by how slanted Wisconsin media coverage was last of week the Obama Administration's announcement that it is modernizing overtime pay rules for the benefit of workers.

The immediate loud and hyperbolic complaints of corporate lobby groups dominated most Wisconsin coverage, with a few notable exceptions. Much of the coverage did not even mention any Wisconsin support for the rule.  In other states a simple google search immediately yielded headlines such as “New Overtime Rule A Boon for CN Workers”(Hartford Courant) and “Thousands of WV Workers to Become Eligible for Overtime Pay” (Charleston Gazette Mail). But in Wisconsin, the immediate attacks on the rule by corporate lobbying groups predominated.

We at Citizen Action of Wisconsin put out an immediate statement the morning the overtime rule was announced both supporting the new overtime rules, showing the local impact in each major Wisconsin city, and making the argument that raising the pay of workers will give the economy a big boost. With the exception of half dozen media outlets, mostly in medium sized markets, major media did not even report that there was anyone in Wisconsin defending the overtime rule, let alone give their audience their side of the story.

Although you would never know it from most Wisconsin media coverage, what has happened to overtime in this country is a smoking gun on how the economy has been rigged by corporate lobbyists and elected officials against workers, reducing real income and slowing the economy down. In 1975, when the concept that working more than 40 hours should generate overtime pay, 62% of salaried workers were covered. Over the last decade, the protection is so frayed that only 7% of salaried workers qualify.  “And you wonder why the middle class is struggling,” Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday. “If you work overtime you should actually get paid for working overtime.”

But instead of proving this critical context, most Wisconsin media treated the overtime rule as a sneak attack on business. As case in point is Milwaukee Public Radio (WUWM), not to be confused with the much more balanced Wisconsin Public Radio.

In a lead story entitled “Wisconsin Employers Expect Cost, Headaches, to Follow New Overtime Rules,” played during local news breaks on NPR’s Morning Edition, the story spends one paragraph on the Obama Administration’s case for the rule and 8 paragraphs on hyperbolic complaints against it. No Wisconsin advocate for workers favoring the overtime rule is mentioned or quoted. Here is some typical content.

"Brandon Scholz of the Wisconsin Grocers Association doesn't mince words. 'This is the most misguided, uninformed, callous rule that the President has delivered in his eight years in office,' he says. ...'Grocery stores typically employ somewhere between 50 and 250 employees, so if you're one store and you have 175 employees, can you figure it out by Dec. 1? Maybe, maybe not. But what if you got 12 stores and you have thousands of employees in different locations? I mean, this is a nightmare,' he says."

This kind of coverage reflect a typical media bias, framing of the economy entirely from a business point of view. Absent from the story is any perspective from grocery workers logging long hours for low pay, or the economic advantage of raising raises by thousands of dollars in every Wisconsin community.  Also missing from all the claims of disruption, is the fact that corporate lobbyists are the people who fought upward revisions of the overtime rule for 4 decades, creating a situation where only 7% of salaried workers qualify. The disruption of the Obama Administration's modernization of the rules is a product of their own rigging of our nation’s wage and hour laws.

Another case in point was Jason Stein in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writing under the headline “Groups Raise Concerns About Overtime Rule.” As far as I can tell, this is the only locally produced article the state’s largest paper did on the subject.

Stein’s story falls hook, line, and sinker for a classic corporate PR trick: cloaking their position as something supported by more sympathetic actors like charities and universities. 

Stein’s article begins:

"The Obama administration's new overtime rules are drawing concern from government and charitable groups in Wisconsin, who say the measure would raise their costs beyond their means to pay."

Stein creates a frame in the critical first sentence of the article which suggest the opposition is led by people other than the major corporate lobbying groups. His next sentence balances this only slightly.

"Within the state, business groups such as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce have led the charge against the rules, which have been praised by labor groups for boosting the paychecks of ordinary workers."

The last sentence about labor groups supporting it is the only defense of the overtime rule in the entire article. Stein then doubles down on the theme that the opposition is broader than the corporate lobby groups which are “leading the charge.”

"But questions are also being raised by other groups such as the University of Wisconsin System, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee, who say it would raise their costs substantially."

Stein then reveals the actual source of all of this information about the non-corporate opposition to making more workers eligible for overtime.

"In a conference call Wednesday led by WMC and a coalition of other groups, league executive director Jerry Deschane told reporters that a boost for workers was reasonable but that the new rules went too far."

Deconstructing Milwaukee Journal Sentinel coverage, it is clear that the WMC held a conference call, where they sought to soften the message by having it come not from corporate CEOs who would be seen as fighting to pay their workers as little as possible, but softer sources like universities, charities, and local government officials. These officials may be willing to serve as props for the WMC, but they are not the players who will be driving the effort to override the overtime rule in Congress.

This is exactly what the WMC’s PR folks wanted, and Stein delivered it to them on a silver platter in the state’s largest newspaper.

Absent from this coverage are the stories of workers who are struggling to afford the basics even when working an average of 47 hours per week in Wisconsin. Also absent is any broader analysis of the economic benefits to the economy of rewarding work, and giving working families the resources to spend more dollars in their local communities.

Wisconsin coverage of the overtime rule (so far) is a classic example of how rigged media coverage aides and abets the rigging of the economy against workers.

But don’t despair. Although a new vision for a fair economy may have been ignored in the first burst of coverage, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson has announced he will take the lead in trying to pass legislation to override the overtime rule. This, and his challenger Russ Feingold’s immediate support for the revision of the overtime rules, gives progressives more opportunity to fight through the biased media filter and get the message out that what is good for workers is good for the economy.

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