- REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/Files
- Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures, a cofounder of the Seattle Review of Books, and a frequent cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast with Nick Hanauer.
- In this opinion piece, he speaks with Media Matters senior fellow Matthew Gertz about what media coverage often gets wrong when discussing economic issues – particularly raising the minimum wage.
- Think critically about the sources that pieces cite and “know that the overwhelming body of evidence proves raising the minimum wage allows more people to participate in the economy.”
- For more on this topic, listen to the latest episode of “Pitchfork Economics.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In this week’s episode of “Pitchfork Economics,” we talk with Media Matters senior fellow Matthew Gertz about, among other things, what the media often gets wrong in its economic coverage. Gertz, who has been dogged in his coverage of Fox News’ various lies and thinly veiled conservative agenda pulling, has a keen eye for the manipulation and mishandling of stories. So he offers plenty of insight into why and how reporters can wind up botching coverage of basic worker rights.
It’s important to make clear up front that we’re not talking about “fake news” here or discrediting journalism. A strong and independent media is one of the central institutions of democracy. What this episode of “Pitchfork Economics” is about is the importance of media literacy and media criticism – particularly as it pertains to economic issues.
- Angela Ciccu
This subject couldn’t be timelier: On January 1st, 2020, more than half of the United States and the District of Columbia will raise their minimum wage. All of these increases are a real cause for celebration. We’ve led the way on a $15 minimum wage here in Seattle, and the results have been roundly great. Despite the loud complaints of a few surly business owners and conservative pundits, raising the wage hasn’t killed jobs, raised costs for consumers, or closed restaurants. The University of Washington research team that initially published a tepid report on the minimum wage in 2017 has had to publicly reassess its findings, and the biggest public skeptic on the team, Jacob Vigdor, has freely admitted this year that his early anti-increase writings were “wrong, or off-point.”
But Seattle isn’t the only proving ground anymore. Now that wage increases are commonplace, studies around the country show that raising the wage is great for everyone. Researchers found that after New York City adopted the $15 minimum wage, “revenue and employment” are both up at NYC restaurants. We have learned that increasing the minimum wage helps decrease recidivism in Americans who have been to prison. A higher minimum wage saves lives: When wages go up, suicide rates have been found to decrease. And the most comprehensive study in decades proves that minimum-wage increases are great for workers.
But just as it brings wage increases for workers around the country, the first day of the new year also delivers a more malicious tradition: It kicks off a flurry of concern-trolling news stories about how the minimum wage is killing jobs.
See, the process usually goes like this: Restaurant owners realize that they’re going to have to pay their employees more in the new year. They take to Facebook, or they complain to their friends, that labor costs are killing their bottom line. Why, the way things are going, the owners opine, they might even have to close!
Then a local reporter catches wind of the complaint. They credulously repeat the owner’s claims in a scary piece about the so-called “unintended consequences” of the higher wage. These reports always rely solely on anecdotes, and they almost never look into the abundant economic data arguing that minimum wages are an unalloyed good for everyone.
If you look around, you’ll see that 2019’s batch of year-end minimum-wage scary stories have already started trickling out. Here’s one from Sacramento. Here’s one from Bakersfield. Here’s a particularly irresponsible one from Seattle that tosses a fistful of unrelated anecdotes into a slurry of scaremongering. The Wall Street Journal just published a horror story from a very concerned Seattle restaurant worker who just so happens to serve on the board of directors of an anti-minimum-wage organization disguised as a labor rights group.
These sensationalized stories, of course, get clicks. Then they start to drip into the conservative media echo chamber. Eventually, some enterprising young right-wing commentator will aggregate a few anecdotes together into a fact-free piece arguing that the minimum wage is killing the economy and we should eliminate a minimum wage entirely. That piece will circulate even further on Facebook with a super-scary headline, and eventually even some well-intentioned liberals will start to question the worth of a minimum wage. It’s all as predictable as an annual flu outbreak.
Luckily, there’s a vaccine for this outbreak, too. You can fight this conservative clickbait virus with a healthy dose of media literacy. A few things to keep in mind:
- First, I urge you to bookmark my easy, 10-point checklist that helps you determine if a minimum wage study is real or bogus.
- Beware of stories that cite mammoth restaurant chain closures as a victim of a $15 minimum wage – outfits like Restaurants Unlimited have plenty of problems on a macro level. It’s more a failure of out-of-control vulture capitalism than the plight of a restaurateur.
- Keep an eye out for stories built on a single anecdote of a closure – unless the restaurant owner is willing to open their books to public scrutiny, their complaints about the minimum wage as the sole reason for closure are beyond suspicious. Skyrocketing rents are becoming a leading driver in restaurant closures, for instance, and restaurants that fail to adjust to changing customer tastes are a perennial reason for closures. (Both of the restaurants mentioned by name in the above Wall Street Journal piece, incidentally, come down to Seattle’s booming real-estate market – and not labor costs – as the reason for closure.)
- And finally, if the restaurant in question is a franchise, it’s much more likely that the closure is due to a parasitic business model than what the sandwich makers are earning.
If you see a friend or loved one sharing these stories, you’ll be doing workers everywhere a favor if you try to correct the record. Feel free to commiserate about the closure of the pizza place – nobody likes to see a business fail – but then share some of the links from this piece to the studies which prove that this one sad story isn’t representative of a larger trend.
And if you’re having a conversation with a Trump-loving relative who claims that the president has finally raised wages for American workers without raising the federal minimum wage, gently point out that the vast majority of wage growth that the economy has seen is due to the $15 minimum wages that have been implemented in cities and states around the country.
Finally, it’s important to make sure people know that the overwhelming body of evidence proves raising the minimum wage allows more people to participate in the economy. This ensures that restaurant workers can afford to eat in restaurants, which of course is great news for restaurant owners, too. You won’t convince everyone – some people just aren’t willing to believe the happy news that we all do better when we all do better – but the odds are good that you’ll help someone think more critically the next time a scary piece of anti-minimum-wage fiction crosses their feed.