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The Press: The Enemy Within

While business sections grow larger, the labor beat remains very solitary. In contrast to the many reporters covering business, the Times has only one, Steven Greenhouse, writing full-time about labor and workplace issues. (Several other Times reporters cover labor-related issues as part of their beats.) Greenhouse seems to be everywhere at once, reporting on union politics, low-wage workers, and corporate labor practices. More than any other big-city reporter, he has called attention to Wal-Mart’s Dickensian working conditions. Yet he could surely use some help. When, for instance, General Motors recently announced that it was scaling back health benefits for its workforce, the story appeared on the Times‘s front page for a day, then settled back into the business section, where it was treated as another business story. As a result, the paper has largely overlooked the painful social effects that the retrenchments at GM, the auto-parts company Delphi, and other manufacturing concerns have had on the Midwest. More generally, the staffs of our top news organizations, who tend to be well-paid members of the upper middle class living mostly on the East and West Coasts, have limited contact with blue-collar America and so provide only sporadic coverage of its concerns.

This summer, Nancy Cleeland, after more than six years as the lone labor reporter at the Los Angeles Times, left her beat. She made the move “out of frustration,” she told me. Her editors “really didn’t want to have labor stories. They were always looking at labor from a management and business perspective—’how do we deal with these guys?’” In 2003, Cleeland was one of several reporters on a three-part series about Wal-Mart’s labor practices that won the Times a Pulitzer Prize. That, she had hoped, would convince her editors of the value of covering labor, but in the end it didn’t, she says. “They don’t consider themselves hostile to working-class concerns, but they’re all making too much money to relate to the problems that working-class people are facing,” observed Cleeland, who is now writing about high school dropouts. Despite her strong urging, the paper has yet to name anyone to replace her. (Russ Stanton, the Los Angeles Times‘s business editor, says that the paper did value Cleeland’s reporting, as shown by her many front-page stories. However, with his section recently losing six of its forty-eight reporters and facing more cuts, he said, her position is unlikely to be filled anytime soon.)

2.

On August 30—the same day the waters of Lake Pontchartrain inundated New Orleans—the Census Bureau released its annual report on the nation’s economic well-being. It showed that the poverty rate had increased to 12.7 percent in 2004 from 12.5 percent in the previous year. In New York City, where so many national news organizations have their headquarters, the rate rose from 19 percent in 2003 to 20.3 percent in 2004, meaning that one in every five New Yorkers is poor. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I—and many editors of The New York Times—live, the number of homeless people has visibly grown. Yet somehow they rarely appear in the pages of the press.

In 1998, Jason DeParle, after covering the debate in Washington over the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as well as its initial implementation, convinced his editors at The New York Times to let him live part-time in Milwaukee so that he could see Wisconsin’s experimental approach up close. They agreed, and over the next year DeParle’s reporting helped keep the welfare issue in the public eye. In 2000, he took a leave to write a book about the subject,4 and the Times did not name anyone to replace him on the national poverty beat. And it still hasn’t. Earlier this year, the Times ran a monumental series on class, and, in its day-to-day coverage of immigration, Medicaid, and foster care, it does examine the problems of the poor, but certainly the stark deprivation afflicting the nation’s urban cores deserves more systematic attention.

In March, Time magazine featured on its cover a story headlined “How to End Poverty,” which was about poverty in the developing world. Concerning poverty in this country, the magazine ran very, very little in the first eight months of the year, before Hurricane Katrina. Here are some of the covers Time chose to run in that period: “Meet the Twixters: They Just Won’t Grow Up”; “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America”; “The Right (and Wrong) Way to Treat Pain”; “Hail, Mary” (the Virgin Mary); “Ms. Right” (Anne Coulter); “The Last Star Wars”; “A Female Midlife Crisis?”; “Inside Bill’s New X-Box” (Bill Gates’s latest video game machine); “Lose That Spare Tire!” (weight-loss tips); “Being 13”; “The 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America”; “Hip Hop’s Class Act”; and “How to Stop a Heart Attack.”

The magazine’s editors put special energy into their April 18 cover, “The Time 100.” Now in its second year, this annual feature salutes the hundred “most influential” people in the world, including most recently NBA forward Lebron James, country singer Melissa Etheridge, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, Ann Coulter (again!), journalist Malcolm Gladwell, and evangelical best-selling author Rick Warren. Time enlisted additional celebrities to write profiles of some of the chosen one hundred—Tom Brokaw on Jon Stewart, Bono on Jeffrey Sachs, Donald Trump on Martha Stewart, and Henry Kissinger on Condoleezza Rice (she’s handling the challenges facing her “with panache and conviction” and is enjoying “a nearly unprecedented level of authority”). To celebrate, Time invited the influentials and their chroniclers to a black-tie gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time-Warner Building.

A staff member of Time’s business department told me that the “100” issue is highly valued because of the amount of advertising it generates. In 2004, for instance, when Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was named a “Builder and Titan,” her company bought a two-page spread in the issue. Because Time‘s parent company, Time Warner, must post strong quarterly earnings to please Wall Street, the pressure to turn out such moneymakers remains intense. By contrast, there’s little advertising to be had from writing about inner-city mothers, so the magazine seems unlikely to alter its coverage in any significant way.

Time‘s “100” gala is only one of the many glitzy events on the journalists’ social calendar. The most popular is the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This year, hundreds of the nation’s top journalists showed up at the Washington Hilton to mix with White House officials, military brass, Cabinet chiefs, diplomats, and actors. Laura Bush’s naughty Desperate Housewives routine, in which she teased her husband for his early-to-bed habits and his attempt to milk a male horse, was shown over and over on the TV news; what wasn’t shown was journalists jumping to their feet and applauding wildly. Afterward, many of the journalists and their guests went to the hot post-dinner party, hosted by Bloomberg News. On his blog, The Nation‘s David Corn described arriving with Newsweek‘s Mike Isikoff, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and Times editor Jill Abramson. Seeing the long line, Corn feared he wouldn’t get in, but suddenly Arianna Huffington showed up and “whisked me into her entourage.” Huffington, he noted, asked everyone she encountered—Wesley Clark, John Podesta—if they’d like to participate in her new celebrity-rich mega-blog.

It was left to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show to imagine what the journalists and politicos at the dinner were saying to one another: “Deep down, we’re both entrenched oligarchies with a stake in maintaining the status quo—enjoy your scrod.”

A ruthlessly self-revealing look at journalists’ obsession with celebrity was provided earlier this year by Bernard Weinraub. Writing in The New York Times about his experience covering Hollywood for the paper between 1991 and 2005, he told of becoming friendly with Jeffrey Katzenberg (when he was head of Walt Disney Studios), of being dazzled by the ranch-style house of producer Dawn Steel, of resenting the huge financial gulf between him and the people he was covering. He recalled:

Waiting for a valet at the Bel-Air Hotel to bring my company-leased Ford, I once stood beside a journalist turned producer who said, “I used to drive a car like that.” Though I’m ashamed to say it, I was soon hunting for parking spots near Orso or the Peninsula Hotel to avoid the discomfort of having a valet drive up my leased two-year-old Buick in front of some luncheon companion with a Mercedes.

During the 1990s, the Times reporters, Weinraub among them, breathlessly recorded every move of the agent Michael Ovitz. Today, it does the same for Harvey Weinstein. The paper’s coverage of movies, TV, pop music, and video games concentrates heavily on ratings, box-office receipts, moguls, boardroom struggles, media strategists, power agents, who’s up and who’s down. The paper pays comparatively little attention to the social or political effects of pop culture, including how middle Americans regard the often sensational and violent entertainment that nightly invades their homes. As in the case of factory shutdowns, journalists at the elite papers are not in touch with such people and so rarely write about them.5

3.

All of the problems affecting newspapers appear in even more acute form when it comes to TV. The loss of all three of the famous anchors of the broadcast networks has led to much anxiety about the future, and CBS’s decision to name Sean McManus, the president of its sports division, as its new news chief has done little to allay it. Yet even under Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather, the network news divisions had become stale and predictable. After September 11, there was much talk about how the networks had to recover their traditional mission and educate Americans about the rest of the world, yet one need only watch the evening news for a night or two to see how absurd were such expectations. On November 4, for instance, CBS’s Bob Schieffer spent a few fleeting moments commenting on some footage of the recent rioting by young Muslims in France before introducing a much longer segment on stolen cell phones and the anxiety they cause their owners. ABC’s World News Tonight‘s most frequent feature, “Medicine on the Cutting Edge,” seems directed mainly at offering tips to its aging viewers about how they might hold out for a few more years—and at providing the drug companies a regular ad platform. In 2004, the three networks together devoted 1,174 minutes—nearly twenty full hours—to missing women, all of them white.

Decrying the decline of network news has long been a popular pastime. The movie Good Night, and Good Luck features a famous jeremiad that Edward R. Murrow delivered at a meeting of the Radio and TV News Directors Association in 1958, in which he assailed the broadcast industry for being “fat, comfortable, and complacent.” In 1988, the journalist Peter Boyer published a book titled Who Killed CBS? (The answer: CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter.) Tom Fenton’s more recent Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All, is especially revealing, drawing as it does on extensive firsthand experience. In 1970, when Fenton went to work for CBS, in Rome, the bureau there had three correspondents—part of a global network that included fourteen major foreign bureaus, ten mini-bureaus, and stringers in forty-four countries. Today, CBS has eight foreign correspondents and three bureaus. Four of the correspondents are based in London, where they are kept busy doing voice-overs for video feeds from the Associated Press and Reuters—the form that most international news on the networks now takes.

  1. 4

    American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare (Viking, 2004); see the review by Christopher Jencks in this issue of The New York Review.

  2. 5

    For more on this subject, see my article “Off Course,” Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 2005.

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