Anatomy of a Media Attack: ABC News, Fox News, and CNN on White House and Equal Pay

On this Equal Pay Day, it is instructive to see how the mainstream media constructs an attack on the White House and disguises it as good old-fashioned adversarial journalism. One clip you’ve probably seen all day today is of cable news hosts debating the talking point about a supposed gender pay gap among the White House staff, which conservatives raise annually in an attempt to undermine the President’s commitment to pay equity, and the notion of pay equity itself. The figure that The American Enterprise Institute is using this year, 88 cents on every dollar, comes from comparing the median annual salary of women who work in the White House, to the median annual salary of their male colleagues.

The AEI report deliberately ignores whether the men and women at the White House are being paid the same amount for the same jobs, because they’re trying to critique President Obama’s use of a similar statistic in his speeches about equal pay. Whether you agree with the critique or not, it is a mildly clever one, and well within the bounds of a partisan think tank. Besides, when two different reporters tag-teamed White House Press Secretary Jay Carney about it on Monday, Carney explained, clear as a bell, that women in the White House get paid exactly the same as men for the same jobs. Clear as a bell. Jon Karl brought up the AEI study, and Carney explained the gap as a function of looking at the aggregate of all staffers, including the most junior, but that “men and women in equivalent roles here earn equivalent salaries. For example, we have two deputy chiefs of staff, one man and one woman, and they earn the same salary. We have 16 department heads, over half of them are women, all of whom make the same salary as their male counterparts.”

Fox News’ Ed Henry followed up, shortly thereafter, by summarizing that “you’re basically saying that women at the senior levels here make equal or more than men, but if you’re at the lower level and you’re a woman on the White House staff, you don’t make as much?”

“No, that would be a misreading and misinterpretation of what I said,” Carney replied, clear as a bell. “Everybody at every level here at the White House is paid the same for the same work, male or female.”

Apparently, not clearly enough for Ed, who asked “So how do we get to the 88 cents?”

“Well, I think I just explained that, but I’ll do it for you as well, and that is that when you look at the aggregate — and this includes everybody from the most senior levels to the lowest levels — you’re averaging all salaries together, which means including the lowest-level salaries, which may or may not be, depending on the institution, filled by more women than men,” Carney said again, adding “But at every level here at the White House you’re paid the same for the work that you do regardless of your gender.”

So, with all of that tape of Jay Carney saying, over and over again, how men and women at the White House get paid the same amount for the same work, here’s how it got reported on CNN this morning, by John King:

Is it fair to point out that the President is using a raw figure to represent the wage gap, one that doesn’t compare women and men in the exact same jobs? Yes, although it’s also fair for him to use it, because that 77 cent figure takes into account a range of factors beyond here-and-now, direct wage discrimination. Those women who hold junior positions now will hold the senior positions of tomorrow.

What isn’t fair is for ostensibly objective news organizations to present a Republican talking point, then only play part of the White House’s response. Later in that segment, Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev briefly tried to explain the rest of Carney’s answer, but as CNN presented it, Carney was copping to a gender pay gap that doesn’t exist.