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Stupid White Men The Culture of Fear It's A Free Country What A Wonderful World


Culture of Fear Title

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Culture of Fear BookOops, Wrong Crisis

If the news media merely got the facts wrong about an occasional homicide, that would be no big deal. But the significance they attach to many of the homicides and other violent crimes they choose to spotlight is another matter. The streets of America are not more dangerous than a war zone, and the media should not convey that they are.

Some places journalists have declared crime ridden are actually quite safe. Consider an article Time magazine ran in April 1994 headlined across the top of two pages: "Not a month goes by without an outburst of violence in the workplace-now even in flower nurseries, pizza parlors and law offices." One of literally thousands of stories published and broadcast on what was dubbed "the epidemic of workplace violence," Time’s article presented a smorgasbord of grisly photographs and vignettes of unsuspecting workers and managers brutally attacked by their coworkers or employees. "Even Americans who see a potential for violence almost everywhere like to suppose there are a few sanctuaries left. One is a desk, or a spot behind the counter, or a place on the assembly line," the writer sighed.

More than five hundred stories about workplace violence appeared in newspapers alone just during 1994 and 1995, and many included some seriously scary statistics: 2.2 million people attacked on the job each year, murder the leading cause of work-related death for women, the number-three cause for men. "How can you be sure," asked a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, "the person sitting next to you at work won’t go over the edge and bring an Uzi to the office tomorrow?" Her answer was, "You can’t."

At least one journalist, however, grew leery of his colleagues’ fear mongering. Erik Larson, a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, having come upon the same numbers quoted time and again, decided to take a closer look. The result was an exposé in the Journal titled "A False Crisis," in which Larson revealed how the news media had created an epidemic where none existed. Of about 121 million working people, about 1,000 are murdered on the job each year, a rate of just 1 in 114,000. Police, security guards, taxi drivers, and other particularly vulnerable workers account for a large portion of these deaths. Cab drivers, for instance, suffer an occupational homicide rate twenty-one times the national average. On the flip side of that coin, people in certain other occupations face conspicuously low levels of risk. The murder rate for doctors, engineers, and other professionals is about 1 in 457,000, Larson determined.

Another vocational group with relatively low rates, it turns out, is postal workers. The expression "going postal" became part of the American vernacular after some particularly bloody assaults by U.S. Postal Service employees against their supervisors. Yet postal employees are actually about two and a half times less likely than the average worker to be killed on the job.

All in all fewer than one in twenty homicides occurs at a workplace. And while most of the media hoopla has been about disgruntled workers killing one another or their bosses-the Uzi-toting fellow at the next desk-few workplace murders are actually carried out by coworkers or ex-workers. About 90 percent of murders at workplaces are committed by outsiders who come to rob. The odds of being killed by someone you work with or employ are less than 1 in 2 million; you are several times more likely to be hit by lightning.

Larson deconstructed as well the survey that produced the relentlessly reproduced statistic of 2.2 million people assaulted at work each year. Most of the reported attacks were fairly minor and did not involve weapons, and once again, the great majority were committed by outsiders, not by coworkers, ex-employees, or bosses. What is more, the survey from which the number comes would not pass muster among social scientists, Larson points out. The response rate is too low. Fewer than half of the people contacted responded to the survey, making it likely that those who participated were not typical of employed Americans as a whole.

Given that workplace violence is far from pandemic, why were journalists so inclined to write about it? Perhaps because workplace violence is a way of talking about the precariousness of employment without directly confronting what primarily put workers at risk-the endless waves of corporate layoffs that began in the early 1980s. Stories about workplace violence routinely made mention of corporate downsizing as one potential cause, but they did not treat mass corporate firing as a social ill in its own right. To have done so would have proven difficult for many journalists. For one thing, whom would they have cast as the villain of the piece? Is the CEO who receives a multimillion dollar raise for firing tens of thousands of employees truly evil? Or is he merely making his company more competitive in the global economy? And how would a journalist’s boss-or boss’s boss at the media conglomerate that owns the newspaper or network-feel about publishing implicit criticism of something they themselves have done? Pink slips arrived with regularity in newsrooms like everywhere else in corporate America in recent years, and they didn’t exactly inspire reporters to do investigative pieces about downsizing.

To its great credit, the New York Times did eventually run an excellent series of articles on downsizing in 1996. In one of the articles the authors noted off-handedly and without pursuing the point that about 50 percent more people are laid off each year than are victims of crime. It is an important comparison. From 1980 through 1995 more than 42 million jobs were eliminated in the United States. The number of jobs lost per year more than doubled over that time, from about 1.5 million in 1980 to 3.25 million in 1995. By comparison, during that same period most crime rates-including those for violent crimes-declined. A working person was roughly four to five times more likely to be the victim of a layoff in any given year than to be the victim of a violent crime committed by a stranger.

For many, job loss is every bit as disabling and demoralizing as being the victim of a crime. You can lose your home, your health insurance, your self-esteem, your sense of security, and your willingness to report harassment or hazardous working conditions at your next place of employment. During the economic boom of the late 1990s layoffs occurred at an even higher rate than in the 1980s. In what former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich dubbed "down-waging" and "down-benefiting," highly profitable companies replaced full-time workers with part-timers, temps, and lower-paid full-timers, and they subcontracted work to firms that paid lower wages and provided poorer benefits. Yet throughout the past two decades the news media printed and broadcast exponentially more stories about crime. In the early and mid-1990s 20 to 30 percent of news items in city newspapers concerned crime, and close to half of the news coverage on local television newscasts was about crime.

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