Voodoo Economics

Suburban retailers tell reporters they're having to lure potential employees with free coffee and fast-track applications. But clearly, few have been given the corporate green light to increase pay or offer benefits.

While bargain shoppers were soaking their feet the day after Thanksgiving, NBC Nightly News aired a three-minute feature about America's much touted labor shortage. "The good news is that the economy is booming," anchor Tom Brokaw enthused. "The bad news is that there are more jobs than workers, so Christmas shoppers may find themselves standing in longer, slower lines." There was no subtext to the visually driven report, no economic analysis--just holiday horror courtesy of beleaguered retail managers and harried consumers.

Twin Cities broadcasters and print media have run similar versions of the networks' sob stories, fretting over the Mall of America as if it were an endangered beast. "What do employers want for Christmas?" the Star Tribune wondered in a typical feature. "Help!"

What's missing, says Kris Jacobs of the Jobs NOW Coalition in St. Paul, is any analysis of the labor market itself. "The jobs employers are offering are not that useful to people who need to work for a living. If employers want people to value their jobs, the jobs have to be more valuable, period." According to a 1997 study by Jacobs's group, Minnesota has more than 10 job seekers with a high-school diploma for each job opening paying $7.50 or more, the wage required to keep a family of three just above the federal poverty line. To afford a decent two-bedroom apartment, a reliable car, child care, and medical insurance, the same family needs to make at least $14 an hour in the metro area, the group calculates.

Jacobs argues that when stories ignore or bury those kinds of numbers, media consumers are led to conclude that "we have a labor shortage because people don't want to work. Which, by implication, means welfare benefits are so generous that people don't have to take responsibility. But the dirty little secret is that there is way more demand for decent jobs than what the unemployment rate reveals. The number of people who are already working and need a full-time job, instead of two part-time jobs, or who need a better job, is incalculable."

Meanwhile last week's Wall Street Journal reported that real worker compensation per hour (wages and benefits combined) has not gone up since 1993, while corporate profits reached their highest level in 30 years. Suburban retailers are willing to tell reporters they're having to lure potential employees with free coffee and fast-track applications. But clearly, few have been given the corporate green light to increase pay or offer benefits for hourly employees.

To be sure, not all local reporters are oblivious to economic reality. In their stories about welfare reform, Pioneer Press writers Lynda McDonnell and Mike Hughlett have unearthed the chasm between what many jobs pay and what it takes to get above the poverty line. The Star Tribune's Mike Meyers has analyzed the connection between wages and training. And Strib business reporter Jon Tevlin produced the area's best, most humane coverage of the Stroh's closing in St. Paul. Unfortunately, superior sources and comprehensive data doesn't play well during the holidays--a time to cover the stuff on the shelves, not the people behind the counter.

CRAZY IS...: WRQC, Rock 100.3, is cashing in on Lee Mroszak's 15 minutes. Since the Crazy Cabe was kicked off KQ's Morning Crew for filing a fake story involving Green Bay QB Brett Favre, he's enjoyed the attentions of columnists Brian Lambert and Doug Grow, two mentions in CJ's gossip space, and an appearance on the Howard Stern Show. As a result, he's gotten the attention of WRQC's Operations Manager, Andy Bloom--the man charged with turning metro morning listeners on to Stern and away from Disney's KQ. "I'm not going to tell you I'm going to hire the Cabe, or that I'm not going to hire him. I'm cautiously talking to him, because I have a lot of concerns," Bloom says. "You have to give the guy a lot of credit, though. He's got balls."

Ah yes, that intangible something, that talent you can't teach, that radio staple as common as black coffee: Balls. Brains or no brains, whoever swings them lowest wins the morning war for male listeners 18 to 35, the target demographic for radio executives and their advertising clients. Bloom knows Barnard's faithful are questioning his manhood. He knows the longer Cabe stays in the news, the better it is for Stern. In short, he's found a rare chink in the armor and he's on the attack. That's what he gets paid for.

Over at KQ, the party line is as disingenuous as it is revealing. Barnard and crew, supposedly willing to take on any sacred cow, have refused to comment on the debacle. Instead Mark Steinmetz, group president of ABC Radio, released a statement saying he was "embarrassed, contrite, and apologetic" when he found out Cabe's interview with a Favre "lover" was fiction. He should be, but not because of Cabe. Knowing Mroszak, KQ should've assumed the report, allegedly filed from Favre's hotel room the morning of the Viking/Packer tilt, was staged. At the very least, they should've checked it out before sending out press releases bragging about the scoop. What's more, Steinmetz should get a handle on his cash cow. Barnard hired Cabe away from The Edge to prove his show could be as zany as Stern's. When push came to shove, though, the boys backed down. In Bloom's vernacular, they whipped it out and came up short.

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