THE BLOG
11/16/2007 05:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

WGA Strike : Lying With Numbers

Atrios catches some anti-WGA strike bias on CNBC, a network that prides itself in catering to "business executives and financial professionals that have significant purchasing power". The chyron reads :

WHAT ARE THEY FIGHTING FOR?

4,434 Hollywood guild writers worked full-time last year.

Average salary: $204,000

Many earned $1 million or more

Well, to answer CNBC's question, they aren't fighting for "significant purchasing power". They're fighting for the financial security that would allow their members to remain in the middle class.

Middle class? Two hundred grand sounds like a good deal, but remember that's the average salary. This number was chosen specifically because CNBC and the studios on whose behalf they're arguing want you to believe that most writers are spoiled brats whining about their six-figure incomes. But in a case like this in which a deliberately-vague "many" WGA members earn over $1 million, the "average" income is misleading. A much more important measurement of writers income is the median.

For a good illustration of the difference between "average" and "median" incomes, let me refer you to this graph from the classic book "How to Lie With Statistics" (used without permission. go buy it now!) :

If you add up all of the salaries and divide it by the number of employees, you come up with an "average" that is a poor indicator of an ordinary worker's income. After all, Mr. Moneybags at the top brings home more than twenty times what the dozen peons at the bottom of the graph make. And this "average" income is only earned by one person, who earns more than 20 of the 24 employees on the chart. While the "average" in this case is mathematically correct, it doesn't represent the typical income. Or to use an oft-cited example, if Bill Gates walked into a homeless shelter, the "average" income would skyrocket, but it wouldn't change the fact that everyone else is poor.

Now let's go back to the WGA strike. Thanks to our friends at CNBC, we know that the "average" WGA member makes $200K, but what's the median income? According to an LA Times op-ed written by a WGA board member :

"The median income of screen and television writers from their guild-covered employment is $5,000 a year, in part because almost half our members don't work in any given year."

Five. Thousand. Dollars. Now keep that figure in mind when you see these CEOs gush about how much money they'll be making :

CNBC wants to know "What are they fighting for?". Well, considering that writers aren't even being paid for this "golden era", the WGA is fighting to keep their five thousand dollars from being taken away in the future. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Read more strike coverage on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.

(Cross-posted from This Modern World and The Talent Show)