Monkey See, Monkey Do

In its haste to cover the latest story, the media forgets to cover the most important one

There is no more telling indictment of reporters and editors than the surprise felt by most Americans in seeing the raw poverty among New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina. In an open society, nobody who had been watching television or reading newspapers should have been surprised by what Katrina “revealed,” to use the word so widely uttered in the aftermath. The fissures of race and class should be “revealed” every day by America’s free press. Why aren’t they?

We used to cover poverty. Maybe my lenses are fogged with nostalgia, but I remember my years in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the metropolitan staff of The New York Times as an era of acute attention to the problems of the city’s poor. The civil rights movement and the urban riots had raised the country’s consciousness. Many beats – mine was housing – carried a hard-working staff into the bleakest neighborhoods where vocal community organizations and welfare-rights activists pressed their arguments.

As Great Society funds flowed from Washington, local government could hardly avoid the issues of poverty – and neither could we, because then as now, news organizations covered mostly government. From the mayor’s office to the city council, the planning commission and other agencies, poverty and race were woven into the public agenda. Stories were easy to get.

It is an axiom of democracy that government should not escape scrutiny, and it’s a principle of journalism that what government does is news. Policies and programs generate stories about the problems designated for resolution, the gaps between promises and performance, the demands from below on those in power, the underlying politics and economics.

By contrast, what government fails to do is usually not defined as news. But it should be, for neglect is a form of policy, too. When government ignores a problem, the problem festers and usually fades into the shadows of coverage until a Hurricane Katrina ravages New Orleans or a riot tears through South-Central Los Angeles. If the White House pursues an issue, either at home or abroad, the bright searchlight of attention focuses for a while, and once the beam swings away, the subject disappears. When was the last time you saw a story about Nicaragua? Or Kosovo? Eventually, when American troops leave Iraq, most American correspondents will leave with them, just as most American reporters left the suffering ghettos of America’s inner cities as the War on Poverty subsided during the 1970s into a stalemate of deprivation.

News professionals bridle at the notion that government sets their priorities, but they’ve allowed that to happen indirectly. In newspapers and broadcasting, the only sustained coverage of poverty in the decade before Katrina, most notably by the Times reporter Jason DeParle, was stimulated by a government move: federal welfare reform in 1996. Otherwise, the press still finds it hard to cover poverty when the story is not about change or action but about enduring hardship and government inaction. The main exceptions have been the recent series on class and poverty, including those by the Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, North Carolina Public Radio and the Washington, D.C., public radio station WAMU.

You might imagine that reporters and editors who spend months on a series would grow attuned to issues that would then seep into daily coverage. I haven’t done a content analysis, but I don’t think it happens. The big projects seem isolated from the flow of other reporting. In years of exploring race and poverty throughout the country, I’ve rarely felt a sensation of familiarity, as if I’ve read this somewhere or heard that before. The landscape I’ve found is mostly terra incognita to the major news organizations on which I rely.

That explains the nation’s shock after the hurricane. The deep suspicions of authority among impoverished African Americans – the distrust of police, politicians and even rescue workers – would not have puzzled anyone who has worked on racial issues, and it should not have amazed a literate public educated by solid reporting on racial tensions and injustices. Surely it was no revelation to those who work in nonprofit antipoverty agencies that many of the poor lived in neighborhoods most vulnerable to flooding but could not evacuate because they had no car, no place to go, no credit card for a motel or – even if they owned vehicles – too little money for a tank of gas.

Unfortunately, people who staff antipoverty programs hardly ever get interviewed, although they’re primary sources of non-ideological information about the grassroots problems of the poor. Many of these workers, once poor themselves, transcend the liberal-conservative political dispute about who’s at fault and see clearly the intersecting factors of personal failure and societal failure that create the ecology of poverty.

If reporters spent time at job-training centers, malnutrition clinics, legal-aid offices, housing agencies and the like, they would get more powerful stories in a week than they could write in a month – not about the programs themselves, not the puff pieces that program directors who compete for funding would prefer, but rather about the problems the programs aim to solve. Good coverage would also connect the dots by demonstrating the influence of one problem on another and the links among problems and policies.

Such sophisticated, nuanced and complex portrayals of poverty would enrich understanding beyond the conventional left-right debate that dominates political coverage whenever a bill is introduced or a grand plan is proposed. Much reporting on welfare reform was driven by the assumption that moving from welfare to work meant success; too little light was shed on the poverty wages that were being paid, which trapped former welfare recipients in the same zone of low living standards where they had resided before. Reporting on poverty, then, means diagnosing it, which will help this society be self-correcting. You can’t solve a problem unless it’s defined.

Without covering the subject well, news organizations risk becoming irrelevant to professionals who need information and now have the Internet. When President Bush’s current budget was proposed, I searched my favorite newspapers in vain for details on cuts in poverty programs. I finally obtained them from a nonprofit agency in Hartford, Connecticut, which relied on an Internet subculture of analysts and advocates to do what the press didn’t do.

Would thorough coverage make a difference? After the public editor of The New York Times, Byron Calame, examined a decade of the paper’s reporting on New Orleans and found nothing that “focused on the city’s poor and the racial dimension of poverty,” a former resident, Jose Heinert, offered a cynical reaction in a letter to the editor.

“Poverty there was almost totally ignored by those in the white community,” he wrote. “It was like two parallel worlds, not unlike what I have seen in undeveloped countries. The Times can write articles about it every day. But nothing will change, I’m sorry to say.”

Perhaps he’s right, and the open secret of poverty will not be acknowledged by the more affluent and powerful. We are in a new Gilded Age of huge disparities between rich and poor, a startling display of greed. But alongside the greed stands a towering generosity that is mobilized whenever a catastrophe occurs, be it a tsunami in Asia or a hurricane at home. In traveling the country, I have found powerful currents of concern among Americans of privilege, most of whom raise their hands when I ask who would be willing to pay higher taxes to fight poverty.

Katrina, then, has offered an opportunity for the press to rethink its inattention to a national disgrace. No problem gets cured unless it is first turned out into the sunlight.

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David K. Shipler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, worked for The New York Times from 1966 to 1988, reporting from New York, Saigon, Moscow, Jerusalem and Washington. His most recent books are The Working Poor: Invisible in America and A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America. Reprinted from Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2005. © 2005 by Columbia Journalism Review.

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