Headlines Designed to Divide

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Earlier this morning, I came across this tweet by The Nation reporter Ken Klippenstein, comparing two CNBC headlines:

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If you were trying to sow division and promote civil unrest (and maybe civil war), this is the sort of narrative you would promote.  Of course, it makes a difference if the juxtaposition is simply factual and intended to highlight a problem, but if the headlines and underlying stories are, themselves, spun, the intention starts to look a bit more sinister.

That’s what’s going on, here.  The sinister option.

On the first story, we can immediately spot the spin from the headline.  Over the past 70 years, the labor force participation rate has hovered between 58% and 68%.  With the COVID-19 shutdown, it dropped from a little under 64% to just under 60%.  That’s a big jump harming a lot of people, but the relevant point, here, is that nearly 40% of our population wasn’t looking for work even when the economy was humming along.  Put differently, you could say that nearly half the population is just fine “without a job.”

The second story presents a more-interesting line of spin.  The first sentence of the article shows the headline to be pretty close to an outright lie:

America’s billionaires saw their fortunes soar by $434 billion during the U.S. lockdown between mid-March and mid-May, according to a new report.

“During the pandemic,” as the headline puts it, would have to include the initial shock, not just the recovery, and a quick look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index  shows the market falling like a rock from mid-February to mid-March.  Robert Frank’s article, in other words, measures the increase in wealth from the bottom point of the curve.  Well, the market still hasn’t recovered all the way, and we can assume that the wealth of American billionaires hasn’t either.

A second point is more philosophical:

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had the biggest gains, with Bezos adding $34.6 billion to his wealth and Zuckerberg adding $25 billion, according to the report from Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program for Inequality.

That isn’t surprising.  Ask everyday Americans whether they found value in the ability to shop (Amazon) and communicate with friends and loved ones (Facebook) while locked down at home with many stores closed.  Bezos and Zuckerberg the led the billionaire race during the past couple months because their products had increased value during that time.  Even more: part of the reason these two took the lead in absolute dollar terms was that their fortunes were already huge, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the biggest percentage gain was made by Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, whose net worth had jumped 112% by April 1.

Again, ask folks around the country, and many Americans would say they don’t know what they’d have done without these products during the crisis.

Now, that might be something worth objecting to, and I’d also offer criticism of the system that has limited competition, as well as the pandemic strategy that made such services even more important than they otherwise would have been, but that’s a different critique.  Robert Frank, Yun Li, CNBC, and Ken Klippenstein (as well as Phil Eil, whose retweet brought the propaganda to my attention) seem simply to be trying to gin up division for political purposes.

It’s enough to make one recall the original tagline of another billionaire-creating company, Google: “Don’t be evil.”



  • Rhett Hardwick

    And just who, if anyone, is apologizing for the value of their house increasing? Should they be taxed heavily on the gain?

  • Lou

    I sense a little jealousy, Justin. Maybe your “headlines and underlying stories are, themselves, spun” don’t get the visibility of CNBC, but it’s not from a lack of trying. Would you jump ship if they paid better than the Kochs?

  • Christopher C. Reed

    Ah, inequality where is thy sting? “Inequality” hasn’t been anything other than fake news since Vilfredo Pareto discovered the power law that, conveniently enough, bears his name back in the 1800’s. But “the envious ye shall always have with ye” (KJV something-or-other,) and so its evergreen appeal.

    If we could agree to retire the ‘civil war’ trope reality might deign to make an appearance. There is no civil war in the offing. Contemporary contempt of the elites for the deplorables echoes Northern disdain for the Southrons, but for the Rebs, the stakes were existential. Harper’s Ferry stiffened spines all over the South, John Brown proving to be the best recruiter the Southern militias could hope for. Likewise the Unionists were hardly going to cede the mouth of the Mississippi to a foreign power (that would promptly ally with Britain) as the center of gravity of the economy shifted to the Chicagoland.

    Doubt it? Either way the election of 1860 would go to a lawyer for the Illinois Southern Railway. Just one of those things, folks, one of those crazy things.
    You can’t finance a civil war on Federal Reserve notes and EBT. You need gold, guns, and ammo aplenty. Who’s got that? Russia and China. So we could hear a lot of “there’s a Putin under every bed” for a while, as if we haven’t had quite enough already.

    Taxpayers don’t care for ‘civil unrest’ even as they watch it (with popcorn) on CNN. It takes more than the odd ‘white rap group’ sortie from Mom’s basement to mount an insurrection. There’s precisely no one half as committed to the cause as any random Hamas or Hizbollah footsoldier. Or Weather Undergrounder, for that matter.