Headlines Designed to Divide

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


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.”

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