This morning NPR did a story on a General Motors’ employee benefit program. It turns out that GM provides many of its white collar workers with company cars and free gas. This is not such a shock for a car company, but this program is now being seen in a post-bailout frame, alongside the overblown controversy around AIG’s corporate bonuses.
The narrative that has emerged in the media in regard to these stories is a kind of “gotcha journalism” that focuses on trying to point out any corporate excess from companies that received bailout money. The logic presumes that companies who come begging the American people for a handout should not be squandering their dough. And on those points, I tend to agree. But I worry that the novelty of this kind of journalism will soon wear off and when it does, there will be a more important story that goes left untold.
Whether it be GM or AIG, private jets or big bonuses, corporate excess has been around for a long time. By shedding a new light on the lifestyle and finances of corporate elites, the media is giving us the clearest picture in recent history of how the other half lives. But, while the media and lawmakers seem more than willing to jump on each new example of corporate excess, they are reticent to extend their critiques to the system at large. Instead of talking about how our economic policies have privileged certain ways of doing business and led to many of the corporate polices we are now lamenting, the media and lawmakers focus their vitriol on a few “isolated” examples. By blaming the bad eggs, and ignoring the system, they perpetuate the notion that punishing a few people will fix the problem.
But they have the problem all wrong. What each of these stories highlights, while never mentioning it explicitly, is the increasing gap between rich and poor. This is nothing new. The news media has always been loathe to talk about the income divide in America. However, the lack of any discussion about America’s income divide is becoming conspicuous when the news constantly juxtaposes stories about people losing their jobs, losing their homes, and struggling to stay afloat, with stories about corporate compensation packages, private jets, and lavish retreats. What is consistently missing is the connection between these two narratives.
These topics are treated as separate, as if one had nothing to do with other. When, in reality it is the corporate culture, developed in part due to poor policies and toothless regulation of our financial markets, that has cost so many people their livlihoods. How can we understand where we are if we are unwilling to talk about how we got here? Faced with incredible examples of corporate greed and disheartening stories of struggling communities, the media does us all a disservice by not connecting the dots.