Speaking for the poor
Posted by James McPherson on June 12, 2008
Pultizer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr has long been one of my favorite columnists. Probably nobody writes better about issues of race, though he also focuses on a number of other themes relevant to American society and politics. His Sept. 12, 2001, column titled “We’ll Go Forward from this Moment” flashed around the world via the Internet and gave voice to the anger and determination of millions–an anger that might have made us stronger if the Bush administration hadn’t managed to tie it so heavily to fear and twisted it with lies to bog us down in an ill-advised war against an enemy totally unrelated to the 9/11 attacks still being used by some to justify that war.
On a personal note, I might add that Pitts also is interesting as a public speaker (not true of all writers) and in conversation. A few years ago my wife and I had the opportunity to sit down to dinner with him and a few others, and I’m convinced that the highlight of my student newspaper editor’s year was sharing conversation and a chocolate dessert with Pitts that evening.
Pitts’ column in my morning paper today, however, reminds me of another problem with modern media. It’s not the problem mentioned in his most famous column, and which I’ve often criticized: the fact that we’re so “capable of expending tremendous emotional energy on pop cultural minutiae–a singer’s revealing dress, a ball team’s misfortune, a cartoon mouse.” No, today’s problem has to do with the poor, and their lack of a meaningful voice.
Crime news and entertainment media alike are more likely to portray minorities and the poor as perpetrators of crime. The fact that those same people are more likely to be victims is less obvious, and even the somewhat rosy FBI crime report released a few days ago may hide some disturbing trends. In addition, the media seldom remind us that most welfare recipients are white–even if we just go with traditional definitions of welfare and exclude farm subsidies, corporate tax breaks, homeowner exemptions, retirement benefits and the like. Still, despite the fact that most Americans probably don’t know those things, they’re all old news.
Also not new but worthy of discussion is something else Pitts points out, that poverty is not a black-white-brown issue, and that far too often, “The poor among us retreat instead into the easy comfort of tribalism, black with black, brown with brown, white with white, unable to conceive they might have common concerns that transcend melanin and ancestry. They divide themselves, and thus render themselves inconsequential so that those above in aeries of wealth and power can rest easy, unthreatened by demands for change.”
After eloquently and justifiably asking “who speaks for the poor?” Pitts concludes his piece with, “Or better yet, when do the poor finally speak for themselves?” And therein lies the problem. Assuming that their daily struggles with issues of family, food, shelter and gas prices allow them to time and energy to do so, how do they “speak” when their possible outlets for speaking have been so limited?
After all, the poor don’t “render themselves inconsequential” all by themselves, especially because those within “the aeries of wealth and power”–including corporate media owners–benefit so much from the current situation. I’m no Marxist, but I do know that local television news doesn’t adequately cover anything except perhaps the weather, and newspapers don’t cover the poor. Poor parts of town don’t appeal to advertisers, so newspapers have little incentive to sell papers there or to cover those areas. Newspaper subscriptions are expensive–and just try finding a newspaper vending box in the poorest part of your own city, even if you have the 50 cents or more to spend to try to find out what the City Council has planned for your neighborhood.
The rural poor may be even less represented, especially since news organizations continue to cut staffs–and because news from the outback has little chance of “paying off” in any meaningful way for a media organization. I grew up in a small town in Idaho, and was interested in journalism as early as junior high. But except when I went away to camp, I never had the chance to meet a real reporter until I was in college. Even our high school sports results were called in by the winning coach (though in some places newspapers hire college students as stringers to cover the games, while continuing to ignore issues related to rural poverty).
In addition, with the disparate state of education in poor neighborhoods compared to the suburbs, and with news media that seem to have little relevance to their own lives, the poor are less inclined to turn to the media to try to express their own concerns. They’re also far less likely to have computer skills or Internet access (in some cases, the rural poor still lack electricity), so they are unlikely to have the ability to speak for themselves via blogs such as this one (and with millions of blogs, the chances of any one being read and taken seriously are remote), or to use networking tools to discover and discuss their common interests.
An interesting related discussion comes in a piece today from the Poynter Institute’s Amy Gahran in which she asks, “Do most people really care about local community news?” and “If they really valued it, wouldn’t far more of them make more effort to find it, read it, share it, and preserve and expand it–as well as create their own?” The piece then focuses mostly on news about suburban issues, before asking, “What do you think–and even more importantly, what do you actually see and do in your own life and community?” If the question is aimed at journalists, an accurate answer likely would be “not much.” And if the question is aimed at the people who live in those communities, people in the poorest communities likely can’t answer at all, because they won’t see the question.
Incidentally, ignoring the poor is nothing new for the media. Many news organizations acted as though the Great Depression did not exist even while we were in the midst of it (it will be interesting to see if they do the same if the ongoing slump turns into a new depression). I do like Pitts’ idea of the poor joining together, rising up against the forces that divide and continually conquer them. But activist organizations of all stripes tend to be heavily made up of retirees and college students for a reason–because those folks have the time and money to spare. Sadly, the poor typically have neither.