Again, I tend to think all editors know this feeling. We can sleep at night knowing that we gave a reader his say. But at issue is how the limitations of time and knowledge conspire to create an opportunity for someone to manipulate the public’s understanding of an issue. And Saltsman’s agenda appears to go beyond prompting a discussion or “taking a strong position.” It’s misinformation repeated in letters-to-the-editor pages in dozens and dozens of small-town newspapers around the country as if it were just another point of view.
According to Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, it’s just not true that raising the minimum wage hurts minimum-wage earners. Boushey points to a March study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research that looked at three cities that had raised the minimum wage. It found that workers in Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., were not negatively affected. This study spanned three years, longer than previous studies on the possible “disemployment effects” of raising minimum wage.
Saltsman wasn’t lying when he said “decades of research” show wage increases cause job loss. But he wasn’t telling the whole truth, either, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. Economists used to believe that when the minimum wage goes up, the number of jobs go down. But since the 1990s, that consensus has cracked. Studies are now more sophisticated; they account for small regional differences. When you consider all of the economics literature on the minimum wage, you find that “minimum wage increases do not cause job loss,” she said. “In fact, in some places, there are job gains.”
That’s good to know. After the fact. At the time I got Saltsman’s letter, I didn’t know any of this, because, you know, I’m so not an economist. But I have a pretty good nose, and this letter wasn’t passing the sniff test. So I wrote to Saltsman and said: “Raising the minimum wage is bad for workers? Sorry, not buying it.”
Naturally, he took issue with my tone: “Are you suggesting that you don’t run letters that express a point of view different than your own?”
There’s a kind of dog-whistle messaging here that only journalists can hear. We’re supposed to portray both sides of an issue with equal weight. That’s “balance.” Don’t pass judgment. Let the reader decide. By implying real journalists do this (and poseurs don’t), Saltsman’s goal was to shame me professionally and get his letter into my paper. In other words, he’s gaming me with the rules of my own game. I do have an opinion about minimum wage, but my opinion is irrelevant to his objective. What’s relevant to him is that I expressed a shadow of a doubt, which is grounds enough for alleging that I have an opinion, which, according to the rules we journalists have developed over the years, is enough to cry foul.
I know this game metaphor is distasteful to some, but that’s what it is to propagandists. There are winners and losers. That’s why, to use Eric Alterman’s terminology, Saltsman is “working the refs.” If propagandists work us hard enough, we eventually wear down (we’re human, after all) and give them what they want. Of course, we don’t want to look like we’re caving, so we call it balance. Yet such false balance contributes to the equivocation, obfuscation, vagary, and hyperbole that are hallmarks of propaganda. Indeed, such false balance is antithetical to a journalism that serves the greater good, that serves an informed republic and a strong democracy.
I responded to Saltsman, saying this was “political manipulation under the guise of scholarship.” He wrote back to allege bias: “It’s economic consensus that runs counter to your point of view.”
Then I printed the entire exchange with the headline “Flack Attack: The reason we won’t print this letter.” By saying that I’m not printing a letter that I am obviously printing, I thought I’d found a way out of a journalistic rock-and-a-hard-place.
I’m lucky. My readers expect (and often appreciate) this kind of thing. “Your exchange was, sadly, a rare example of a critical thinking approach to the ‘research’ the Employment Policies Institute consistently—and pervasively—offers up to the public,” wrote Jen Kern of the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit organization that defends the labor rights of minimum-wage earners.
But most editors don’t have that privilege. More often, they are victims of flacks “working the refs.” The Saltsmans of the world need merely allege bias. That, combined with the limitations of time and knowledge, often results in exactly what they want.
For us truth-tellers, that’s exactly what we don’t want.