When men on the street become spokesmen for a cause

Anecdote laundering from the left on the $15 minimum wage fight

I wrote about astroturfing the other day, noticing how anti-minimum wage and anti-Obamacare activist Joe Olivo shows up repeatedly in the press as Joe businessman from New Jersey.

But anecdote laundering is hardly limited to the right. The left is just as capable of taking advantage of journalists’ deskbound, deadline-driven appetite for anecdotes that are just right.

Devonte Yates, who works at McDonald’s in Milwaukee, has showed up in Reuters talking about the minimum wage, Montreal’s 24 Heures, WISN-TV in Milwaukee, Austria’s Nachrichten, the Milwaukee Courier, CNNMoney, AlterNet, Agence France Presse, Minyanville, Congressional Quarterly, People’s World, and most important of all, Pizza Marketplace.

Most of those media hits came on or around August 29, when fast-food workers in several dozen cities across the country—organized by groups funded by labor unions—walked off the job to protest poverty wages and to call for a $15 an hour minimum wage. Most of the rest came in mid-October. Both flurries coincided with press releases fanned out by the public relations firm Berlin Rosen that quoted Yates.

But Yates also showed up a couple of months before the fast-food strikes, talking to The New York Times about the trouble with prepaid card fees.

Of all the people working at McDonald’s, the Times just happened to find one who, helped along by flacks, would be so prominent weeks later in strike coverage.

Yates wasn’t alone in going from obscure burger worker to go-to media source.

You may have heard from Kyle King, a Burger King worker in downtown Boston, who has also been outspoken on poverty wages. In the last ten weeks he’s been profiled in The Boston Globe, been quoted by WCBV-TV and WHDH-TV in Boston, the Associated Press, NPR, the Globe (again), MSNBC, the Associated Press (again), the Globe’s Boston.com, The Boston Herald, the Globe (again), and Workers World, Open Media Boston, Voice of Russia, and New England Cable News—all in the span of five days around the August 29 strikes.

There was a six-week media lull, but then King popped up again earlier this week as the lead anecdote in a (good) page one Wall Street Journal story:

Take Kyle King of Massachusetts. When Mr. King began working at a Burger King in downtown Boston nine years ago, he worked full time and earned $8 an hour. Since then, he has received a single 15-cent-an-hour raise and in recent years has had his hours cut back to part time.

In a better economy, Mr. King might have been able to leave fast food work for a better-paying sector. But with unemployment high, employers can afford to be choosy, and Mr. King has had no luck. Instead, he lives with his brother rent-free, keeps his heat turned down as low as possible and takes the bus to work, yet still finds it hard to cover food and clothes.

Mr. King, 46 years old, says that for him, the recession never ended. “We’re still in it,” he said. “It feels like we’re still in it, and we’re getting worse.”

The problem here is how the WSJ presents King as some random anecdote. The Journal was wrong to use his story per se (though it sure would be nice to not hear from the same person over and over). But readers deserve to know that he’s not just some burger flipper the paper ran across laying down shoe leather. In reality, he’s an advocate—essentially a spokesman—for a specific cause.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll have no false equivalence here. I’m not saying laundering a quote from someone making $8 an hour is nearly as bad as laundering a quote from the boss trying to keep him earning $8 an hour. The bosses’ voices are heard far more often in the press than the workers’ and the public relations resources are vastly unequal.

And the power dynamic is completely different. Nobody’s firing Joe Olivo for speaking out. Workers making poverty wages are already living precarious lives that can be severely damaged by talking to the press. God bless Yates and King for sticking their heads out.

In the strike stories, at least, we know that they’re are advocating for an explicit cause, though we don’t know that they’ve effectively become spokesmen. The July NYT story and this week’s WSJ come closer to astroturfing.

Readers deserve to know where their sources are coming from.

Further reading:

Astroturfing The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. A New Jersey businessman hits the media circuit again, with lobbying connections undisclosed.

Manufactured quotes. News organizations fail to disclose “regular Joe” businessmen’s lobbying ties

More on NPR and manufactured quotes. Why lobbyist-provided rent-a-quotes subvert the news

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,