Earlier this week, “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric told viewers that the state of California was planning to cut the jobs and wages of state workers. Of the more than 200,000 workers who were to be fired or see their wages reduced, a grand total of zero appeared or were quoted on Couric’s program. No discussion with those workers who are soon to be fired about their probable descent into poverty. No chat with those facing lower wages about what it will be like to struggle among the working poor. Nada.
CBS’s decision was of a piece with most media reporting of issues that affect poor people—to the degree that such issues are reported at all. The most recent estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau show that one in eight Americans live below the poverty line. A study by the University at Michigan’s National Poverty Center reveals that one in three Americans will experience government-defined poverty within a 13-year period. And yet the only people less visible in our media today than the poor at home are our soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting study published last fall found that "with rare exceptions, such as the aftermath of Katrina, poverty and the poor seldom even appear on the evening news—and when they do, they are relegated mostly to merely speaking in platitudes about their hardships." The FAIR study, concluded just as the economic downturn was worsening, that "[d]uring the more than three years studied, there were just 58 stories about poverty on the three network newscasts, including just 191 quoted sources." For comparison, the researchers noted that while there were only 58 stories on the entire issue of poverty, there were 69 stories about Michael Jackson’s legal troubles.
And the stories that did appear were often quite superficial, as an examination of the 191 sources they contained demonstrated. In 2001, the three networks included a total of 14,632 sources. Observes FAIR: "Assuming that the nightly news still features a like number of sources per year, that would amount to some 46,000 sources over the 38 months of FAIR’s study, making sources appearing in poverty stories just 0.4 percent of overall sources."
As the economy tumbles toward recession, the number of stories about poverty appear to be are on the upswing, but many of the same old problems continue to manifest themselves. The sound bites used to illustrate the lives of the poor are often interchangeable and stereotypical—and most importantly, what they’re allowed to speak about is severely limited. FAIR, in its study, observed that "in story after story, poor people were included to tell generic stories of suffering, before turning to ‘experts’ who discussed what policies should be pursued to address the situation."
In addition, oftentimes the actual causes of poverty are ignored, as if job loss or lack of economic opportunity were an Act of God. People are shown suffering, sure, but the reasons why do not elicit any interest, much less reporting. FAIR’s study found that:
"CBS… is the prime culprit, having run segments on predatory lending (9/5/03), the difficulties of finding child care (11/25/03) and increasing economic polarization (12/8/05) that studiously avoided asking how government policies had helped to cause or failed to alleviate these problems. The last one blamed the ‘changing economy’ for increased economic polarization, with no indication of what changes were made or who made them…. In late 2005, both CBS (11/24/05) and NBC (12/26/05) ran stories on food banks running short of donations, without explaining or asking why." (CBS, interestingly, had run a nearly identical story on falling food donations two years earlier—11/27/03—something it never noted in its 2005 story.)
Now take a look at the some of the sound bites of the poor in America, as seen on network television news in recent days and weeks that post-date the FAIR study:
- On the August 1 broadcast of “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” the anchor broadcast a story about employers cutting their workers’ hours from full-time to part-time. It began with the testimony of one Laura Colona, who informed viewers that "I clean 28 bathrooms a night, I clean the principal’s office, the lobby and a lot of other things in six hours." The story immediately, then, turned away from Ms. Colona, never to return except for a closing bite: "There is no extras. It’s a struggle. It really is."
- On the June 18 edition of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” viewers met Mike Boseman, who told viewers "I went through a lot of gas in four days. Every four days we went through about a whole tank." The story discussed "the economy hitting home in suburbia," as if that were all there was to it.
- On the June 2 broadcast of the “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, viewers were offered a discussion of the increasing need for food banks due to spiraling costs coupled with smaller pocketbooks. The report featured a Ms. Stephanie Smith, explaining, "Gas prices. Milk is just as much as gas these days. It’s really hard. I’m sorry," and other food bank customers, who explained "I think the best thing people can do is stand back and pray. Pray for better times." Why were food prices rising? No one at CBS seems to know. (The same package ran the next morning on the network’s “Early Show.” No answers had been found overnight, apparently.)
- CBS News also ran a story probing the home foreclosure crisis and its effect on people’s pets. A Ms. Carol Ann Sparveri told the audience about her neighbor who moved away after the losing the family home, and left the family dog behind. Sure it was sad, but it might have benefited from a discussion of how and why so many houses were being foreclosed upon.
We could go on (and on), about these journalistic sins of omission. We would be remiss, however, were we to fail to mention far more greater sins of commission in what Eric Alterman has named the Really Conservative Media. For instance, in October 2006, Bill O’Reilly announced that "here at home, people have a very high standard of living" because "[e]ven the poor have color television sets and pretty much everything they need." He insisted that those who "fail in this country" are "stupid," "addicted," or have "mental problems."
Similarly, Rush Limbaugh announced, naturally sans evidence, that the poor people whose food stamps were being cut "aren’t using them anyway." And the right-wing radio host Neal Boortz complained that the poorest Americans are "a drag on society" and that in the event of a disaster, the United States should "save the rich people first."
On right-wing talk radio the hosts make their atavistic ideological assumptions explicit. In the mainstream media, the argument is not engaged at all. Unfortunately, in both cases, Americans are left just as ignorant about the complex and interlocking societal problems that cause our unusually high poverty rate as they were if nobody mentioned it at all.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, "Altercation," appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America (was recently published by Viking.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.