Earlier this month, I examined the media’s overwhelming indifference to a devastating Guardian report exposing widespread lead poisoning in Chicago’s water system—an indifference that illustrates how notions of “crime” and “criminality” are, to a large extent, socially constructed by our media. Crime, that is, is not some objective category of singularly explainable phenomena to be reported on like the weather; the kind of crimes and criminals media outlets choose to report on (and, equally important, the kind they don’t) has a direct bearing on public perceptions of crime and the crafting and implementation of policy “solutions” to said crime. This reality-manufacturing machine, and the same double standard by which sensationalist media coverage focuses on certain crimes over others, has been on display over the past few weeks as American media—namely, Washington, DC-based media outlets—have published dozens of articles and TV reports about the scourge of so-called “fare evasion” with little moral curiosity or journalistic skepticism. 

If you live in the DC area, you can hardly turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper without being bombarded by editorials warning of the dire consequences of “money stolen” from the DC Metro transit system by riders who don’t pay their travel fares:

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the journalistic ethics of uncritically repeating government claims about “fare evasion” are dubious, to say the least. Broader sociological questions about how our society criminalizes poverty, let alone questions about the wisdom or morality of gatekeeping essential services like basic public transit, are ignored entirely; instead, what media consumers are fed are hysterical, context-free claims about “taxpayers” being robbed in some abstract or meta sense. 

In these reports, you will very likely find no discussion about the racist application of fare evasion citations. The entire reason DC decriminalized it in the first place in 2018 had to do with the fact that, as detailed in a report by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Metro Police almost exclusively applied fare evasion citations to Black people.

In these reports, you will very likely find no discussion about the racist application of fare evasion citations. The entire reason DC decriminalized it in 2018 had to do with the fact that, as detailed in a report by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Metro Police almost exclusively applied fare evasion citations to Black people. “Metro Police stopped more than 30,000 people for suspected fare evasion between January 2016 and February 5, 2018 and issued more than 20,000 citations/summons for fare evasion,” the report notes. “Ninety-one percent of citations/summons were issued to Black people – 72% Black men, 20% Black women and 46% Black youth (under 25 years of age). Black children as young as seven have been stopped.” For members of the Washington Examiner Editorial Board boldly enjoining the public to “dare to re-criminalize fare beating,” such statistics are little more than white noise masking “woke ideas about so-called systemic racism.”

But that’s just the beginning. As a rule, pearl-clutching media reports about hoards of criminal fare evaders provide no discussion about the social costs of austerity regimes that have systematically disinvested in public transit. No discussion of whether, as we face the catastrophic effects of runaway climate change, city governments should be charging people to take much greener modes of transportation in the first place. No parallel criticism of the burden borne by “taxpayers” from police overtime budgets, which routinely balloon to hundreds of millions of dollars over their allotted monies with zero corresponding media outrage. All we get, rather, is a litany of press releases from local reporters and pat, moralistic scolding about cracking down on Bad Guy “fare evaders.”

Setting these discussions aside, it’s useful to compare recent media coverage of “fare evasion”—which, we are told, “cost taxpayers” $40 million a year—to a story from last year concerning Amazon’s mass robbery of poor people, for which the company was forced to pay a settlement of $61.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Despite Amazon being the second-largest private employer in the US and having its second largest corporate headquarters in the area, a survey of local news reports airing on TV channels in Washington, DC, found no mention of the massive tip stealing settlement. 

Last November, the FTC announced Amazon had settled the wage theft lawsuit with its Flex drivers. The ruling in the suit found that the company had been stealing tips from its delivery drivers, already overworked and making low wages, over the course of 2.5 years. Naturally, because this was a corporation stealing from poor people, no criminal charges were on the books—that wasn’t even a possibility. Instead, Amazon, a company with a $1.15 trillion market cap, was slapped with a $61.7 million fine— the equivalent of the average American being caught stealing, pleading guilty, and being fined about two dollars. 

The FTC settlement was given write-ups by some outlets—TechCrunch, USA Today, SlateFortune, and even The Washington Post—but was not the subject of any TV news reports, local or national. Nor was it addressed in any breathless screeds by the editorial boards of The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal, both of which dedicated precious political column space to lobbying for a “crackdown” on “fare evasions.” There were no corresponding editorials calling on police to arrest, detain, or otherwise sanction Amazon executives up to and including Post owner Jeff Bezos, despite the company stealing $20 million more than the $40 million the fare beaters allegedly robbed from “taxpayers.” 

Despite Amazon being the second-largest private employer in the US and having its second largest corporate headquarters in the area, a survey of local news reports airing on TV channels in Washington, DC, found no mention of the massive tip stealing settlement.

The harm caused by Amazon stealing wages from its drivers, who can make as little as $31,400 a year, is far greater than any abstract harm caused by arbitrary federal budget shortfalls resulting from “unpaid fares.” Amazon’s crime had clear, defined victims. Travelers jumping turnstiles only harms people in theory, in principle—which is to say, it doesn’t harm people at all.

In contrast to the moral panic over fare evasion on public transit, the human stakes of Amazon’s illegal practices are real, immediate, and obvious. Over 140,000 Amazon Flex drivers had an average of $422 stolen from them; 19,980 drivers had over $600 stolen from them; and one driver was scammed out of $28,000 by Amazon. These are real people who had money removed from their accounts; cash they earned was taken from them, making them less able to pay for food, groceries, baby formula, and diapers. That stolen money could have been the difference between paying rent and being evicted, affording a semester of community college or dropping out, having healthy blood sugar or rationing insulin. The harm caused by Amazon stealing wages from its drivers, who can make as little as $31,400 a year, is far greater than any abstract harm caused by arbitrary federal budget shortfalls resulting from “unpaid fares.” Amazon’s crime had clear, defined victims. Travelers jumping turnstiles only harms people in theory, in principle—which is to say, it doesn’t harm people at all.  

As USA Today notes: 

The FTC said in February that Amazon Flex drivers were told they would be paid $18 to $25 an hour, with many statements saying things such as “you will receive 100% of the tips you earn while delivering with Amazon Flex.” “Rather than passing along 100% of customers’ tips to drivers, as it had promised to do, Amazon used the money itself,” Daniel Kaufman, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in February.

There’s a word for that: theft. Yet it’s reported as a simple procedural problem, a clerical error. No morality, no hysterics, no calls on lawmakers to “crack down” on the “lawlessness” of Amazon executives. Just a token fine, a handful of dull write ups, and everyone moves on. 

The same can’t be said, however, for crimes committed by the poor on much smaller scale with far fewer human victims. We get months-long media coverage of shoplifting at CVS and Walgreens, and nonstop stories from Washington, DC, to New York, to Chicago lamenting the problem of fare evasion. These replayed instances of petty crime are said to “contribute to a sense of lawlessness” permeating every town and city in the country—or, as the Post editorial board put it, they “[add] to perceptions of disorder and disarray in the system.” But why doesn’t widespread, routine stealing from low-wage workers also “add to perceptions of disorder and disarray in the system”? Why was Walgreens’ $4.5 million wage theft settlement given zero coverage in mainstream media, while one episode of shoplifting from Walgreens was given over 300 separate news articles? The reason is because our media decides which crimes “add to perceptions of disorder” and which don’t. Certainly, the 140,000 Flex drivers robbed by their employer would likely think Amazon’s wanton theft feeds a perception of lawlessness, just not the kind The Washington Post is talking about or concerned with—namely, that which is carried out by their owner. 

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson hosts the Citations Needed podcast and writes at The Column on Substack. Follow him @adamjohnsonNYC.