Media Miss Story of Biggest Pay Cut in History

By David Swanson, ILCA Media Coordinator
Part of the Media Blackout series on underreported labor stories
August 27, 2004

On August 23, the Bush Administration’s Department of Labor eliminated the right to time-and-a-half pay for overtime work for millions of Americans in what amounted to the biggest pay cut in American history. The facts that should have made that statement a headline in every paper in the country were easily obtainable. Reporters had had months in which to review the changes. Experts had written helpful analyses. The specific ways in which various categories of workers were being stripped of their rights would have been no secret to a sixth grader with internet access writing a report for school.

And if our national media couldn’t take the time to read the rule changes, the goals of the Department of Labor and other parties involved had been made abundantly clear. The DOL had published advice to employers on how to avoid paying overtime. Both houses of Congress had passed an amendment to prevent the new changes from stripping workers of overtime pay, but a conference committee under Republican leadership had removed that measure. Business groups supported the changes. Labor unions opposed them. And the Bush Administration had spent four years building a solid record of reducing worker rights and of lying about its actions.

For the media to take seriously Bush Administration claims that these changes would benefit workers would require not only a strict avoidance of research, but also the assumption that the administration was as likely as workers’ organizations to make honest claims about what would help workers. Of course, the media made this assumption, illustrating a fundamental problem with contemporary journalism. Reporters believe they cannot arbitrate between competing views and that they must give extra deference to the government. As a result, whether or not they do their own research, they do not report on what they learn.

This was the lead of the AP story by Leigh Strope on August 23: “Paychecks could surge or shrink for a few or for millions of workers across the country starting Monday, when sweeping changes to the nation’s overtime pay rules take effect.” What reader in the country was wiser after reading that? The rest of the article was no more enlightening, unless you’ve learned to read between the lines. Strope betrayed no evidence of having read the changes or of having drawn any conclusions. To have done so would have strayed from the ethic of “balanced reporting” in which two sides, regardless of the evidence or their credibility, are allowed to use the “unbiased” reporter as a stenographer.

And it’s not as if Strope didn’t know who the players were in this drama, having published the day before an article that in its first two sentences did more than almost any other to make clear what interests were at stake