|05/04||Across the Great Class Divide By Brent Cunningham Columbia Journalism Review|
Today's journalists are more isolated than ever from the lives of poor and working-class Americans. Brent Cunningham writes about the media's responsibility to engage everyone, not just those readers and viewers with whom journalists share cultural and economic touchstones.
NEW YORK, May, 2004 — In the January 19 issue of The New Yorker, Karl Rove told the writer Ken Auletta that President Bush thinks the press is “elitist,” that “the social and economic backgrounds of most reporters have nothing in common with those of most Americans.” For decades now, the political Right has made considerable hay out of the liberal elite bogeyman, and such a sentiment from Bush might be dismissed as mere culture-war blather. But class, which is what the president really means, will play a role in the coming election: tax cuts, unemployment, corporate greed, health care, the echo of John Edwards's “two Americas.”
And Bush is right. Sort of. The class divide between journalists and the poor and working-class Americans many of us claim to write for and about is real, though it has little to do with political ideology and is more complicated than the faux populists of the Right would have us believe. Russell Baker, the former New York Times columnist, got closer to the mark in the December 18 issue of The New York Review of Books. “Today's top-drawer Washington news- people . . . belong to the culture for which the American political system works exceedingly well,” he wrote. “The capacity for outrage had been bred out of them.”
So much for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. As Baker points out, we are the comfortable. The demographics confirm it. We are part of the professional class, reasonably affluent and well educated. By 1996, for example, the last time the American Society of Newspaper Editors conducted a broad survey of the U.S. newsroom, 89 percent of journalists had finished college. Meanwhile, only 27 percent of all Americans have four or more years of college, according to the latest census.
Yet numbers alone can't explain the uneven and often subtle contours of this story. The press has the power to shape how people think about what's important, in effect to shape reality. But whose reality is being depicted? This is how the class divide between journalists and a large swath of the populace comes into play. Just one example: Andrew Tyndall, a media analyst who began measuring the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC in 1987, finds that since then coverage of economic issues has steadily skewed away from stories of poverty and toward stories concerning wealth. Thus, the poor have become increasingly invisible. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the social justice arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reported in 2002 that its annual survey of American attitudes toward poverty showed that “the general public substantially underestimates the dimensions of poverty in the United States.” Most respondents, it said, “maintained that poverty affects some one million people in this country.” The real number is thirty-five million.
This divide, this inability of one America to see and understand the other Americas, has something to do with the collective howl from the mainstream press over the “offshoring” of white-collar jobs – turning Lou Dobbs into a protectionist – after years of writing off blue-collar job losses as the price of progress. And with why the Democratic candidates' anti-poverty policies were all but ignored, despite the fact that both John Edwards and John Kerry had extensive “urban America” proposals on their Web sites. And with why Philip Hersh, a Chicago Tribune sportswriter, wrote in January that the disgraced skater Tonya Harding “grew up in an environment that . . . reeked of white trash,” and when called on it by a reader and the Tribune's public editor, replied that he had “thought long and hard before using it. The term fit Tonya Harding perfectly.” The divide helps explain why Frank Gilliam, a political scientist at UCLA who studies issues of race and local TV news, was told by residents in both a poor black neighborhood and a poor white neighborhood in Indianapolis that the press “only focused on the bad stuff, that they had no access to the media, and were not treated with respect by the media.” It also helps explain the growth of ethnic newspapers. And it has something to do with why Abby Scher, who runs the New York Office of the Independent Press Association, got the following response from a magazine editor in Chicago when she told him, after graduating from college in the eighties, that she couldn't afford to take a job for $8,500 a year: “Can't your parents help you out?”
We in the press have a responsibility to engage everyone, not just those readers and viewers with whom we share cultural and economic touchstones. The good news is that the best reporters and serious news outlets find ways to bridge this divide. The bad news is that we don't do it often enough, and our reluctance to talk about class – in the newsroom and elsewhere – makes it hard to change the equation. There are consequences to the fact that millions of people in this country see little of themselves and their lives in the media, unless they are connected somehow to a problem. It may have something to do with why the press is so disliked and distrusted; or why daily newspaper circulation has been in decline for twenty years. Every reporter has his blind spots. But when we all share many of the same blind spots, it makes it difficult to see the forty-four million people who lack health insurance in this country, for example, as anything but the face of failed social policies – important but abstract.
IN SEARCH OF THE WORKING CLASS
Anthony DePalma, who has been a national correspondent and a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and now covers environmental issues, says that for years he felt as though he had “snuck my way into the paper.” DePalma grew up the son of a longshoreman in Hoboken, New Jersey. He recalls seeing his father sitting at the kitchen table at the end of a workday, in T-shirt and reading glasses, paging through the Jersey Journal. “I never saw my dad read anything else, but he would spend forty-five minutes with the Journal every day,” DePalma says. “It sent a semiconscious message about a newspaper's ability to reach a wide audience.”
DePalma graduated from Seton Hall in 1975 (the first in his family to go to college), married, and went to work unloading trucks for UPS on the overnight shift. During the day, he freelanced. In 1986, after doing quite a bit of work for the Times over the years, he was hired as a reporter in the real estate section. “The lowest rung, the backdoor, whatever you want to call it,” he says. Inside, DePalma felt the divide. “The Pulitzers, the Ivy Leagues. I felt it very strongly,” he says. “You have to understand, the Times never crossed the threshold at our house, growing up.”
The very idea of class makes Americans, including journalists, uncomfortable. It grates against the myth, so firmly ingrained in our national psyche, that ours is a society of self-made men, with bootstraps. This idea persists even though upward mobility, in any broad sense, is becoming a myth. It adds a moral tinge to discussions of poverty, a notion that the poor must shoulder much of the blame for their plight, and the corollary, that the wealthy should be credited for their success.
Class is also difficult to discuss because it has become so connected to the polarizing issue of race. When Alexis Patterson, a black seven-year-old from Milwaukee, and Elizabeth Smart, a fourteen-year-old white girl from Salt Lake City, vanished within a month of each other in 2002, the press turned Smart into a national crusade while few people outside of Milwaukee ever heard of Patterson. Race had something to do with why, as did the circumstances of each case; Elizabeth's abduction from her bed, which was witnessed by her terrified little sister, arguably made for a better story than Alexis, who vanished on her way to school. But class played a role, too. Patterson came from a poor neighborhood, and her stepfather had done time on a drug charge. Smart's father is a real-estate broker, and her uncle a photographer with the local newspaper.
Class is problematic, too, because we don't agree on how to define it. Is it about education? Income? Where do the swelling ranks of the working poor fit in? Under the headline what is rich? a Houston Chronicle article last year illustrated how “in one of the world's most affluent countries, few seem to see themselves as rich, even if they're in the upper-income brackets.” Michael Zweig, an economist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who directs the Center for Study of Working Class Life, defines class based on power. Using data from the census bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he designated occupations as working class, middle class, or capitalist class by the relative power each job affords. A truck driver is working class, for example, but a truck driver who owns his own rig is an independent contractor and is therefore middle class. By this measure, Zweig says, 62 percent of the country's workforce is actually working class. “That's eighty-five million people, hardly a special interest group,” he says.
Zweig's formula resonated with Paul Solman, an economics reporter on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, on PBS. In the spring of 2003, Solman was doing a series of reports on the jobless recovery, and he interviewed Zweig. With the camera rolling, Solman said to Zweig, “By your measure, I am middle class, right?” Zweig agreed, then nodded to the cameraman behind Solman, “And he is working class.” Solman looked over his shoulder at his well-paid cameraman, “Is that true, Kevin?” Kevin thought for a minute and said that it was. “Why?” Solman asked. Kevin answered, “Because I can't say 'cut.'”
Says Solman: “I was struck by that because it suggested that the variable wasn't income, but power, and to a lesser extent security.”
Yet in our national discourse, we are a middle-class country, period. In polls people tend to identify as middle class, regardless of what they do or how much money they make. (Zweig notes that poll respondents are rarely given the choice of “working class,” but when they are more choose that than “middle class.”) From a journalistic standpoint, the working class has historically been linked to organized labor. As labor's numbers, and thus its political power, declined, so did our coverage of it. With its most important public countenance fading, the working-class perspective largely disappeared, too.
DePalma recently got a taste of just how difficult it can be to recapture that perspective in any consistent way. When the Times began its “Portraits of Grief” project on those killed in the World Trade Center, DePalma volunteered. “They were people I knew,” he says, “and I realized that this is a world I had been running away from all these years.” DePalma wrote a portrait of someone who had gone to his high school. He wrote six portraits of fellow Seton Hall graduates. Afterward, he discussed his experience writing portraits with Jonathan Landman, then the paper's Metro editor. “Jon said there are all these people out there who we never write about,” DePalma recalls. “People who basically play by the rules, don't make huge demands on public services. We ignore them except when they die in a tower.” Together they decided that DePalma would take on a new beat that sought to fill this gap in the coverage, a working-class beat.
From June 2002 to August 2003, only two of DePalma's stories from this mini-beat – he was still a general assignment reporter – made page one. The centerpiece was a series about a block in Ozone Park, Queens. DePalma wrote about Rosemere and Danny Messina, who were struggling to save ten dollars a week to celebrate their son's first Holy Communion; about Joseph Raia, retired on permanent disability, who agonized over whether to raise the rent on his long-time tenants – a couple with two young children whom Raia is close to – in the face of the city's property tax increase; about Antoinette Francisco's frustrating effort to care for a neglected tree, which the city eventually cut down.
In September of last year, DePalma got a fellowship at Notre Dame, and handed the beat off to a fellow reporter to tend in her spare time until he got back. When he returned in January, no stories had been done, Landman had been promoted, and interest in the working-class beat seemed lacking. “It had tremendous support from the Metro desk, but it is hard to see how that support was carried out more broadly in the paper,” DePalma says. “I always took that to mean there was a discomfort with terms like 'working class', and attempts to define class in meaningful ways.” DePalma chose to move on.
Landman, now an assistant managing editor, disputes the notion that the beat had little support beyond Metro. “I never heard anybody express or signal discomfort with the idea of reporting on class,” he said via e-mail, noting that “support in Metro is what you need to succeed in Metro,” anyway. As for why the beat was dropped, Landman says that DePalma asked for the environmental beat when he returned from Notre Dame.
For his part, DePalma doesn't hide his disappointment.
“The idea was to expose our readers to a world we normally ignore, the same way we would with villagers in, say, Suriname,” he says. “It is fairly pitiful to compare the working class in this country to villagers in Suriname, but they are almost equally unknown.”
'A SECURE LODGMENT'
Contrary to the comforting notion of the press standing firmly behind the little guy, there was never a Golden Age when American journalism consistently sided with the powerless against the powerful. By 1927, H.L. Mencken was already lashing the press for what he saw as its upwardly mobile ambitions. “A good reporter,” he wrote, “used to make as much as a bartender or a police sergeant; he now makes as much as the average doctor or lawyer, and probably a great deal more. His view of the world he lives in has thus changed. He is no longer a free-lance in human society, thumbing his nose at its dignitaries; he has got a secure lodgment in a definite stratum, and his wife, if he has one, maybe has social ambitions.”
There was once, though, a prominent strain of American journalism that was much more organically connected to the poor and the working class. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, for instance, Appeal to Reason, a socialist weekly out of Kansas, drew hundreds of thousands of readers with its scathing indictments of the inequities of unfettered capitalism by the likes of Upton Sinclair and Eugene Debs. In the 1940s, the short-lived New York paper, PM, was a more mainstream incarnation of this same spirit. Its motto: “PM is against people who push other people around.” In the years before Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1976, the New York Post made something of a last stab at bottom-up journalism. By the 1960s, though, TV was on its way to becoming the dominant journalistic force, the newspaper business began hitching its star to Wall Street, and the age of corporate media was under way. The path to a journalism job led, increasingly, through journalism school, and thus began a new round of professionalization in the business.
Meanwhile, in the late 1960s the Republican Party began recasting itself as the party of the hardhats, those angry white men (mostly) – real Americans – who resented the decade's emphasis on the struggles of blacks, the poor, and the spoiled hippies who were against the Vietnam war. Part of this strategy was to portray the press as members of a liberal elite, the New Class, that was out of touch with these real Americans. This charge, remarkably, has kept the press more or less on its heels ever since. The soul-searching on display in a column Joseph Kraft wrote in the wake of the 1968 Democratic National Convention – “Most of us in what is called the communications field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans . . .” – echoes today in the press's paralyzing fear of being accused of liberal bias. By the time Ronald Reagan was elected and began vilifying the poor, the press – increasingly corporate and cowed – was in no position to resist.
In the 1980s, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened – and journalists were increasingly among the haves. The middle class split, as blue-collar manufacturing jobs disappeared and were replaced by a tide of low-paying, insecure service sector jobs and an expansion of the professional class. Under Reagan, the country sprinted into the ample arms of a shiny new money culture, offering salvation through free markets (and later through technology). Media deregulation launched a leap-frogging series of media mergers that culminated – for the time being – in the ill-fated AOL purchase of Time Warner in 2001. So as journalists joined a broader professional elite, the companies they worked for swelled into corporate behemoths.
In the 1990s, the Internet economy and its overnight millionaires sharpened the wage envy of the new generation of journalists for their professional-class counterparts. David Denby's new book, American Sucker, about his own sad money chase, lays bare this phenomenon of irrational exuberance. So many journalists either bolted for the Internet ether or threatened to that some newspapers began offering stock options to hang on to their talent. The divide got a little wider. “A world where money is a marker and all comparisons are directed upward makes it hard to understand people for whom a million dollars would be a fortune, or those for whom $10,000 would be the difference between affording college or not, not to mention those for whom $246 is a full week's earnings, before tax, at the minimum wage,” wrote James Fallows in an essay called “The Invisible Poor,” published in the March 19, 2000 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Later in that same piece, he wrote, “Compared with the software elite, the professional-class American finds it easier to imagine financial ruin . . . . But there is a great similarity between the view from the top and the view from the next few tiers: the increasing haziness and 'Oh, yes, now that you remind me' nature of the view of the poor.”
The evolution of journalism as a profession – with its higher ethical standards and emphasis on expertise, good writing, and analysis – was crucial for the press to keep pace with the world. But it came at a cost. When the barriers to entry into journalism were lower, newsrooms were open to people who brought a wider range of life experiences to their reporting and editing than we have today. To be sure, that era had its problems. It was inhabited almost exclusively by white men, for one. But an interesting thing about that ASNE survey, mentioned earlier, is how so many attitudes cut across age, race, gender, or ethnic lines. What diversity there is, it seems, is only skin deep.
EMPATHY AND IMAGINATION
The opening scene in Alex Kotlowitz's 1991 book, There Are No Children Here, offers a hint as to how we might begin to bridge this divide. It starts with a group of boys from a Chicago public housing project hunting for garter snakes in the weeds beside some train tracks. Even for someone who didn't grow up in public housing, this is a familiar scene. And that, says Kotlowitz, is the point. “The obvious place to open it is with a scene of violence, because there is violence all through the book,” he says. “But instead I began with this benign moment, to show that even kids whose lives are so precarious find refuge in some of the same things we all did.”
Kotlowitz's subjects were poor, not working class, and in some ways the press does a better job of covering poor people and their issues. The poor have agencies and policies and activists to create pegs for stories. We have a public discourse about poverty in a way we don't about the working class. Still, that discourse is too often one-dimensional: the poor are a problem, victims and perpetrators, the face of failed social policies. Such stories need to be done, of course; news is often about problems, things that are broken. Yet for those of us who are lucky enough to have health care, plenty to eat, a home, and a job that gives us discretionary income, the news has a lot to offer besides problems. We see our lives reflected in the real estate section, the travel section, the food section, the business section. When was the last time you read a story about how to buy a good used car for less than a thousand dollars?
The press has difficulty seeing, as Kotlowitz puts it, what is familiar about the poor. “There are so few reporters who spend time in these communities, that when they are there it seems exotic and foreign,” he says. “We are so appalled by what we see that we are only looking for what is unfamiliar.” This makes it hard to empathize.
Fear, too, makes it difficult to see what is familiar about the poor. Most people working in journalism today grew up in a society that taught us that housing projects were only dangerous places to be avoided. As Jamie Kalven, a Chicago-based writer and public housing activist, put it in Slate in 2002, fear “blocks our capacity for perception, for learning. When mediated by fear, ignorance can coexist with knowledge, blindness with vision. As a result, decent people find it possible to support indecent policies.” In an interview, Kalven amplifies the point. Fear, he says, makes us hostage to a “one-dimensional moral geography” composed of good places and bad places, and “somehow people who are decent and morally sensitive are able to read The New York Times and listen to NPR every day and still hold this notion.”
This flattened coverage is evident in the press's treatment of Chicago's massive “transformation plan,” which began in 1996 and involves razing all of the city's public housing highrises and replacing them with mixed-income developments. The plan represents a fundamental shift in the way the city houses its poor, and a number of cities around the country are following Chicago's lead. There has been a fair amount of coverage over the last seven years, both local and national, and some of it has been important and thoughtful. For example, a series by the Chicago Tribune in 1998 showed how, contrary to the goals of the plan, many displaced public housing residents were ending up in neighborhoods that were just as solidly poor and racially monochrome as the ones they left.
But much of the coverage is top-down, focused on the problems and the process, and heavy with official sources. It is full of middle-class assumptions and fears, including this from a November 10, 1999, USA Today piece on the new mixed-income developments: “The wealthier families bring a greater work ethic and sense of community pride to once-desolate neighborhoods, officials say.”
Against this backdrop, Mary Schmich's columns in the Tribune on Cabrini-Green, one of Chicago's most famous projects, stand out. Since May 2000, Schmich, a Metro columnist, has written two dozen columns on various characters tied to the closing of Cabrini. Those characters – from three black girls saying goodbye to their old school and hello to a new one, to a young white couple who bought into the new, mixed-income Cabrini community – spring from the page fully formed. As one of the schoolgirls, referring to her anxieties about going to school with white kids for the first time, said to Schmich, “We the same kind of people inside.” It was impossible not to feel a connection to these people, partly because Schmich refused to romanticize their situations. But she also showed us their insecurities, their prejudices, their joy. “Too often reporters who want to write about public housing have very fixed ideas of how to write these stories,” she says. “They have the characters in their heads, because they watch too much Law & Order.”
Schmich, who has been at the Tribune since 1985, says three things allowed her to feel as if she weren't writing about “someplace else” when doing the Cabrini columns. For starters, she lives in an affluent neighborhood that abuts Cabrini, and has been “hanging out” around Cabrini for ten years. She also grew up in Georgia near people who were poor and black, and her own father had, as Schmich says, “numerous jobs and we were often broke. The differences between me and the people in Cabrini is that there were patches in my childhood when I wasn't so poor, my parents were educated, and I was white, people helped me out,” she says. “When I did these columns it wasn't anthropology, but rather from a sense that these were my neighbors.”
Her main criticism of how her paper covers the poor in Chicago is really a criticism of journalism broadly. “I think this paper has a very deep commitment to covering the whole range of people and issues in Chicago,” Schmich says. “But it is a question of how we do it. We bite off a huge project every few years, and that has the effect of reducing the poor to a problem. Then they disappear largely until the next big project.”
There are consequences to covering the poor in this one-dimensional way, consequences that the more affluent subjects of news stories can avoid. “You're dealing with a population that has extremely limited resources for self-representation,” says Jamie Kalven. “They have no mechanism for holding folks accountable.” In a Newsweek article on the Chicago transformation plan from May 15, 2000, for instance, Mayor Richard M. Daley is quoted as saying, “What people want is education, jobs and job training.” But in a survey that Kalven's organization did in 2000 that asked residents of the Stateway Gardens housing project what they most wanted for their neighborhood, three of the top five answers were related to better health care, but the other two were “more activities for children” and “more cultural activities,” like theater and music. Says Kalven: “These people were asserting their dignity as human beings. Our entire discourse defines them as problems, and they quietly resist it, but no one is listening.”
All this would seem to suggest that if we want more nuanced coverage of the poor and the working class, then we should hire more reporters and editors who come from poor and working class backgrounds. But, as many good reporters continue to prove, you don't have to be a coal miner's daughter to write well about Appalachia. Kotlowitz, for example, grew up comfortably middle class on New York's Upper West Side. In fact, being an insider can bring some unexpected problems. Wil Cruz, a Newsday reporter who was born and raised in the LaGuardia Houses, a public housing project on New York's Lower East Side, knows something of this. “If you and I were to go cover a story in the south Bronx, they would see you as official and treat you with some respect,” he says. “They would be more comfortable with me, but I'm not sure that works to my advantage. They might see me as showing off my success.”
Reporters do, however, need to be motivated to get beyond our assumptions. To do that it helps, as the St. Paul Pioneer Press's Maja Beckstrom says, to be able to imagine “What if?” An interesting thing emerged as I interviewed reporters for this piece: a large number of them were raised by single mothers, including Beckstrom, the author David Shipler, The Washington Post's Anne Hull, and The Guardian's Gary Younge. All said something similar, that experiencing the fragility of a broken family – no matter how quickly or comfortably things settled – allowed them to imagine how close they are to those in society whose lives seem, from the outside, to be nothing but problems. Hull, a national features writer at the Post, isn't sure just how her background shaped her as a reporter, but says this: “I'm much more comfortable around these people than I am being at, say, the courthouse, or places where everyone wears a suit. Maybe I'm intimidated by power. I don't know.”
“These people” Hull refers to include the young immigrants and children of immigrants in Atlanta whom she wrote about in a four-part series in late 2002. The original idea, not surprisingly, was a piece on the growth of Latino gangs in Atlanta – a problem. But Hull came back with a richer story about kids who were caught between their desire to escape the world of their parents and an American society that often failed them, either in the classroom or on the streets. “A lot of writing about immigrants today is really precious, and reduces them to a single dimension: hard-working,” Hull says. “But they're real people, with flaws. They make bad decisions.”
It takes time for outsiders to write these stories; Hull spent sixteen months on her Atlanta series. That may be an extreme, but to do these stories right requires that such coverage be a newsroom priority.
Spurred by its 1998 project on poverty, the Pioneer Press created a poverty beat and gave it to Maja Beckstrom. In 2002 she went on maternity leave and the beat died, a victim, she says, of the paper's “effort to rethink priorities of coverage given a tight budget.” Once back at work, she was given the choice of a twenty-something lifestyle beat or one on parenting and families. Beckstrom chose the latter.
Even if reporters are attuned to the complexities of life for the poor and the working class, they face a number of obstacles to getting those stories in the paper or on the air. The profit expectations of newspapers and television news operations have had a dramatic and well-known effect on the quality of journalism: shorter stories, fewer reporters, and a focus on those readers who appeal to advertisers. “There aren't too many publishers who come striding into the newsroom demanding more coverage of the ghetto,” says Walker Lundy, a former editor of the Pioneer Press and The Philadelphia Inquirer, who is now retired. “You can't sell many ads when your readers don't have credit cards, and thus some readers are worth more than others.”
The priorities of corporate media aside, the very ways we define and deliver news today works against the kind of coverage Hull, Schmich, and the others are after. Our devotion to the ideal of objectivity produces too many stories that are so concerned with “balance” that they end up saying very little. The pace of the news cycle, as well as the shrinking newshole, foster a way of thinking about the news that doesn't lend itself to nuance and complexity. We are trained to find the quick hit, not to connect the various dots and reach conclusions. For example, a new study of how New York City's daily newspapers covered the city's post-9/11 budget crisis, commissioned by the nonprofit Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, found that the coverage failed “to clarify the stakes of policy decisions on various socioeconomic classes.” The coverage, the study concluded, suggested that “everyone's interests are identical.” Not surprisingly, the sources used to delineate and explain those interests were mostly politicians and government officials.
For David Shipler, the former New York Times correspondent whose latest book is about the working poor, it took a newsroom strike to free him of the confines of daily journalism. “I was in Moscow with the Times when we went on strike in 1978,” he says. “For three months I didn't have to write for the paper, and I stopped thinking in terms of the seven-hundred-word story. I began to notice things that I hadn't stopped to consider, to see patterns and connections. That's why I was able to write a book. I got a different lens. When your antennae are highly tuned for the 'good story,' these things go by you. Unless a paper is willing to give reporters the freedom to not write every day, then it will be hard for them to find a new lens.”
Dale Maharidge, who won a Pulitzer for his 1989 book And Their Children After Them, about rural poverty, never found it difficult to see the world from the bottom up. Since taking his first journalism job at The Gazette of Medina in Cleveland, his hometown, in 1977, Maharidge has been referred to by editors, somewhat derisively, he says, as the “bum writer.” He was the son of a steelworker who had a side business at home, grinding cutting tools for industrial use. “I literally grew up breathing steel dust,” says Maharidge. His new book, Homeland, due out July 4, is about an undercurrent of working-class – really working-poor – anger that Maharidge says predates 9/11. The book highlights the kinds of stories the press misses because of this “lens” problem Shipler talks about.
Among the people Maharidge introduces us to are a mother and son who live together in Bridgeview, a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, where, following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, a white mob marched on a local mosque, threatening to burn it down. In 2002, on the first anniversary of the attacks, there was another march in Bridgeview, and Maharidge was there for it. He saw the mother and son, carrying an American flag, being chased off by the police, and he followed them and got their names and address. A few days later he went to their house. Two hours later he had a deeper understanding of the anger on display in that march, and it wasn't as much about anti-Muslim bigotry as press accounts surmised. The son, who was in his mid-thirties, couldn't work because of a heart condition. He showed Maharidge a grocery bag full of medical bills – $200,000 worth, the son said – that he had no way to pay. The mother, who needed knee-replacement surgery that she couldn't afford, lifted her shirt to show him a pain patch on her back. She worked for seven dollars an hour at J.C. Penney, but had no insurance. “Would they have still been racists if they had jobs and insurance?” Maharidge says. “Sure. But would they have been out there marching? Maybe not.”
There are things that we could do to address this class divide and get a news report that is, as the Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans put it, “multiperspectival.” The most obvious is to broaden our diversity recruitment programs to include a specific focus on class. Efforts to bring racial and ethnic diversity to the newsroom have struggled, and this one wouldn't be any easier. But Tim Rutten, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, cautions against fatalism on the question of building socioeconomic diversity. “I worked with the first black in the L.A. Times newsroom, the first Latino, the first woman editor, and the first woman on the masthead,” he says. “All those things are commonplace now in journalism, but there was a time when each seemed an impossible social barrier.”
Editors might do more to encourage reporters like Newsday's Wil Cruz as he struggles to figure out how to use his background – he dropped out of high school before eventually getting a degree from New York's City College – to inform his reporting on his new beat, education. “I don't know if it gives me power,” he says of his atypical path to journalism. “If it does, I haven't been able to channel that advantage into my stories. But I need to, because I see it as a responsibility to do it right.”
Newspapers need to play to their strengths, and stop trying to compete with the electronic media on every breaking story. The ability of even the sharpest journalism to effect real change is incremental at best, but the stories that have a shot – the scoops that matter – are those that go deep and tell us important things about the world, that challenge the way we think about something. David Barstow and Lowell Bergman's Pulitzer-winning articles last year in The New York Times said something important about worker safety in this country, but they took seventeen months to complete and involved a dozen reporters, researchers, producers, and editors. As important as those stories were, though, they are indicative of how the press approaches the poor and the working class. As Mary Schmich says, we embrace the big project, then ignore them until time for the next big project. Day to day, their perspectives and concerns are missing from the media.
A bit of outrage would help, too. Russell Baker says that outrage has been “bred” out of us, that we come from a class for whom the system has largely worked, and he's right. The working class has all but disappeared from our pages and no one seems to notice. We report on the poor, but do little to empower the poor. That's what makes the recent crusade by the New York Daily News to raise the state's minimum wage so noteworthy. Not only did the paper have a reporter dogging the issue from the field, but its editorial page hammered away at it for months.
Anthony DePalma says that the outrage is still with us, but that it takes a crisis – a pair of kids starving to death in Newark, an innocent man being shot forty-one times by the police in the Bronx – to draw it to the surface. Well, how about this for a crisis: We are the richest country in the history of the world, and we tolerate thirty-five million of our fellow Americans living in poverty; we tolerate forty-four million without health insurance. Meanwhile, Gannett pays Larry Miller, its outgoing CFO, $600,000 a year for an open-ended “consulting” contract, in addition to a car and golf club membership.
© Columbia Journalism Review, 2004. All rights reserved.