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How Soon We Forget

“As all of us saw on television, there’s also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.” – President George W. Bush, September 15, 2005.

Nearly two months have passed and the conversation in Washington has moved from confronting poverty with bold action to cutting the food stamp program and enacting further tax cuts. As I write this the big news today is about a twister in Indiana, the Asian bird flu, more deaths in Iraq, state gubernatorial campaigns, and, of course, how Brad and Jennifer are doing.

The “news” in America does not represent what is important for citizens to know – quite the opposite. There is a large body of literature (boring, academic, too full of symbolic equations and tables) suggesting that “news” in America, particularly television news, actually prevents us from knowing what is important to know and from holding our elected representatives responsible.

A provocative little book titled, Is Anyone Responsible?, written by a relatively obscure academic, Shanto Iyengar, sums up the problem this way:

Americans’ failure to see interconnection between issues may be a side effect of episodic news coverage . . . Confronted with a parade of news stories describing particular instances or illustrations of national issues, viewers focus on individual and group characteristics rather than historical, social, political, or other such structural forces . . . Rather than providing a “marketplace of ideas,” television provides only a passing parade of specific events, a “context of no context” . . . the upshot is that instead of serving as a restraining force on political elites, television further legitimizes their pronouncements and actions.

If Professor Iyengar is right, it is not that the conservative right has a more robust noise machine or that the liberal left is feckless or that the American public is fickle. The problem is that most of us get our information through commercial television and that the way commercial television news is delivered keeps us from putting the pieces together and holding our public servants accountable. As the parade marches by, the float featuring poor people unable to find higher ground recedes in the distance and the marching band just around the corner featuring the music of the Alito confirmation is already calling our attention.

Poor people, of course, don’t need Katrina to tell them there is deep, persistent poverty in their community. Minorities need little reminding that they face discrimination. As fetching as either Alito or Angelina might be there is little possibility that her latest romance or his past pronouncements will distract a poor brown mother from finding a way to supplement the meager food stamps that certain members of Congress seem eager to cut. No, the people who need to know about this not-so-hypothetical mother are those of us caught in the wonder of the passing parade, scurrying to keep in step. Those of us who need to remember are the ones trapped in the opiate of the news.

New American Media, formerly known as New California Media, released a poll this month to remind us news addicts that the vast majority of Americans still think poverty is important.


Bendixen & Associates, 2005

According to the poll many Americans, especially ethnic Americans, have lost confidence in the ability of the current government. But the vast majority of all Americans are convinced that “government should do everything in its power to eliminate poverty.”


Bendixen & Associates, 2005

As “news” reports on the latest overseas excursion of the President and the predictable laughter in the Rose Garden during the annual reprieve of the White House Thanksgiving turkey, we must hold on to the fact of the poor brown mother struggling to feed her children. We must resist the parade and remember our national conviction that our elected representatives must be held responsible to address the American disgrace of poverty.

Mark Lloyd is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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