Joseph Stiglitz, Patricia Cohen, and Michael Massing examine how concerns about inequality gained media spotlight
“The 1 percent has been a really useful framing device,” said economics reporter Patricia Cohen of the New York Times, “but I think it’s more a question now of the 0.01 percent or 0.001 percent, in terms of that concentration of wealth.”
Cohen was speaking at a February 23 event on “Income Inequality, the Media, and the 2016 Presidential Election.” She and fellow panelists Joseph Stiglitz, the SIPA professor and Nobel Laureate, and Michael Massing, author and contributor to the New York Review of Books, discussed the role that the media has played in giving inequality its current cultural moment.
Stiglitz cited a study put out by Oxfam that he called a very “cogent image” of the economic inequality the world faces today: a bus of around 60 attendees at the Davos World Economic Forum contained as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion citizens in the world. But while the media ultimately “did play a role” in highlighting inequality, he said, “reality also played a role.”
Stiglitz explained that median income in the United States is now lower than it was 25 years ago, and real wages are lower than they were 60 years ago. He called these “astounding numbers for a country that claims to be having economic progress.”
Event moderator Anya Schiffrin, director of the International Media, Advocacy, and Communications Specialization at SIPA, reminded the audience that while income inequality might in fact be having such a cultural moment, there is a long tradition of waxing and waning public interest in the subject across decades. She brought up the example of Huey Long and Father Coughlin, two well-known agitators against income inequality during the 1930s, as the “historic roots of what we’re seeing today.”
Panelists also connected the media and the public’s fixation on inequality with the rise of populist candidates in the 2016 presidential election. Massing said that while polls were helpful, he wanted reporters to dig deeper to provided a more nuanced understanding of why Americans support candidates such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. “The press, with each election,” he said, “is more and more in the dark.”
This event was hosted by SIPA’s United States regional specialization, the Urban and Social Policy concentration, and the International Media, Advocacy, and Communications Specialization.
— Lindsay Fuller MPA ’16