Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Medium Is the Message

The Medium Is the Message

A recent study by two economists for the International Monetary Fund connected the decline in union membership in advanced economies to the overall rise of income inequality. It is not just pushing down the wages of the working class, they wrote; it is also increasing the incomes of the wealthiest 10 percent.-- "Fate of the Union," New York Times Magazine, 6/14/15

Flip the cover of today's NYT magazine and you're in another world -- a 4-page advertising section showing glowing images of another high-rise aerie for the super rich in Manhattan. The juxtaposition seems to underscore the relationship between the decline of union membership and the rise of the super rich. (It's also a reminder of the kind of advertising that helps pay the bills at the Times.)

The story consists of a probing look at Scott Walker's track record of lies and backstabbing broken promises in passing Act 10 and the right to work legislation that followed it. And it details Walker's horrible jobs record and the fact that "Wisconsin is now among the top 10 states people move out of."

But the photos and graphic design seem to convey a different message, suggesting that unions are an obsolete part of a distant past that's irrelevant, not up to the challenges of a modern high-tech economy.

You could say the black and white images with their deep, noirish shadows have a gritty, photojournalistic look. But it's also a dated look, quite different from the color images we've come to know from recent Capitol protests, which show contemporary people -- friends, neighbors and coworkers -- clearly engaged with today's problems and politics.

The distancing effect is deliberate.The cover image could be from the labor disputes of the 1930s, As photography director Kathy Ryan puts it, "Philip Montgomery's stark photograph of pro-union protestors outside the Senate hearing room in Madison, Wis.,in February evokes labor protests of the past. The echo of earlier demonstrations is amplified by the cinematic lighting and shadows resulting from the use on an off-camera flash."

Reporter Dan Kaufman digs into the lives and struggles of the union members he talks to, but the photography seems to have a different focus. By visually associating them with the distant past, they suggest unions are so yesterday,  increasingly irrelevant in a high-tech world run by billionaires from their high-rise hideaways. And since people tend to glance at pictures more than they read long articles, this may be the message that lingers.

It's another example of how the New York Times represents a kind of concerned liberalism that's deeply uneasy about real populism.

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