Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Writing for a living is a privilege

As a rule, people usually dispute accusations of privilege by pointing at people who are even more privileged. In The Natural History of the Rich, Richard Conniff observes that even "people with money seldom think of themselves as rich," particularly compared to people who are even more wealthy. A few paragraphs later, he quotes businessman Nelson Peltz lamenting, "You see these guys worth $3 billion to $4 billion, and you think to yourself, 'What have I done wrong?'" Peltz has a net worth of $970 million.

This move is even more common in the media, where successful pundits make less but are often much more visible. It's easy to point to celebrity journalists and prestige columnists who make more, and who are better known, and who have more better access and so on, and to plead that they are the truly privileged writers; and obviously this is true as a matter of degree.

But a comparative and structural understanding of privilege complicates this picture. Personally, most journalists are at least middle class, and even those who aren't are well positioned to make their way into it. More importantly, however, one can typically only make a living in journalism by participating in the corporate-industrial complex of mass media and public relations. For this reason, even when the power that most journalists wield doesn't accrue to personal advantage (in terms of salary and so on), they nevertheless project an extraordinary degree of power and influence out of all proportion to most Americans.

The first point is easy enough to quantify: the Bureau of Labor Statistics places the median annual salary for reporters and correspondents at $36,000 a year. This is already enough to place most Americans in the middle class, though your mileage will vary depending on household size, location and so on. The top 10% of journalists make around $82,000, placing them in the top 30% of earners in the United States and arguably the upper class (subject to all the usual caveats).

Another important (though less easily quantified) consideration here is that many journalists have sources of wealth and economic security on top of their income: second jobs, wealthy partners, generous parents, and so on. This is probably the expression of all kinds of selection effects; if you can survive in such a precarious and competitive industry, if you can afford to live in the relatively expensive news centers of Washington, DC and New York City, and if you have the college degrees and social connections to get hired in the first place, you're likely to have economic advantages to supplement your writing income.

In any case, all of these personal considerations are tangential to a more important point: most journalists are only successful insofar as they are voices for much more powerful interests. Even the smallest public relations outfits have publication and promotional budgets well out of the range of individual writers, and that in addition to dedicated editorial and advertising staff. If you have made a career and built a personal brand out of writing, both are direct functions of the enormous capital poured into the communication efforts that you were paid to advance.

That's why even the most obscure, niche, and underpaid journalists in America tend to have a much bigger voice than everyone outside of the field. This doesn't mean that they are personally living more comfortable or more successful lives than anyone else; but their unique position in the PR wing of capital's professional-managerial class certainly gives them power, and the left in particular should recognize this when we consider the media's role in our political discourse.