What's Missing in the American Media: Working People

Wind Dancer Productions in association with Carsey-Werner Company

A still from a 1988 episode of Roseanne, which ran on CBS from 1988 to 1997.

This article originally appeared on BillMoyers.com, the website of the Moyers & Company television program.

Working Americans are woefully underrepresented in our mainstream media.

According to an analysis by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the media watchdog group, so far this year “not a single representative of a labor union” has appeared on any of the four Sunday network talk shows (NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This WeekFox News Sunday and CBS’s Face the Nation).

And it’s not that they were too preoccupied with Beltway politics to examine issues that affect working families. According to FAIR, during the year these “shows touched on issues like poverty, jobs and workers’ rights. There were even discussions of efforts to organize college athletes… But representatives of organized labor were not part of these conversations.”

Corporate CEOs, in contrast, got plenty of face time on these influential shows. Current and former CEOs made twelve appearances on the four Sunday shows in 2014.

The challenges real households face are also largely absent from the fictional families we see on TV. In the 1970s, some of the top-rated sitcoms were about hard-working families struggling to get by in a tough economy. Norman Lear became a legendary Hollywood producer with shows like Good TimesOne Day at a TimeSanford and Son and All in the Family. All of these shows featured storylines that reflected the the kinds of problems real people face every day—struggling to pay the bills or worrying about losing a job.

For the most part, today’s sitcoms portray economic insecurity as a charming—and momentary—passage of youth. Lena Dunham’s hit show Girls features twentysomething characters who frequently quit jobs because they’re still trying to “find their way”—or are artists just waiting to be discovered. In the meantime, they are outraged when their parents threaten to stop paying for them to live comfortably in relatively plush New York apartments. Even the characters in CBS’s Two Broke Girls live in a hip pad in Williamsburg; when they decide to start their own business, their boss is good enough to lend them $20,000 in seed money.

The last commercial broadcast show that came close to a realistic portrayal of an American family struggling to make ends meet was probably Roseanne, which went off the air in 1997. During her quixotic presidential run in 2012, I asked Roseanne Barr why mainstream sitcoms no longer dealt with the struggles so many working people experience. “I don’t think that would be in the interest of the people who control what goes on here,” Barr told me. She talked about media consolidation following deregulation in the 1990s, and added that corporations ”took control of all content, all context and all message. They think that the plight of the 99 percent of Americans isn’t worthy of being discussed in any media.”

If that’s the case, then there’s a real gap between the economy many American families experience first-hand and that portrayed in our major media. In advance of the Labor Day weekend, the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University released a new report which found that the majority of Americans are “unhappy, worried and pessimistic” about the economy as it reaches the fifth year of recovery from The Great Recession.

According to the report:

The vast majority of Americans see the recession as having wrought fundamental and lasting changes across a wide number of areas of economic and social life, including the affordability of college (historically important for upward mobility in American society), the age at which people are able to retire, workers’ job security, and retirees having to work part time. While majorities say the recession left permanent changes in these areas, there is about another third who say these areas will not return to pre-recession levels for many years to come. A significant number also think that the workplace will become less attractive in future years… half (53 percent) think job security is a thing of the past…. A large segment (40 percent) bemoans the loss of “good jobs at good pay” for those who want to work. Finally, just over one-third think the U.S. unemployment rate will be stuck at a high level forever (35 percent) and half say it will be for a long time to come (49 percent).

This is the way most families see the economy they’re navigating today, but you would be hard-pressed to know that from turning on your TV.

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