|by Michael Newton-McLaughlin|
|Published on: Dec 15, 2002|
|Pretentious, unscrupulous, elitist, snide, cantankerous – just a few adjectives in which to describe the corporate media of today. Recently, my position on the student government allowed me the unique opportunity of deal with the local Sacramento press. The experience was less than appealing, as the journalists, if one could call them that, were indeed pretentious and snooty who seemed to treat the matter at hand as beneath them. Then there is another story to tell, one about homeless – another unique opportunity that I had to spend some time with our local impoverished. Yet the two stories I will convey have an overall significance, that of the media exploiting the poor and impoverished for their own corporate interests, yet doing nothing to really address the reasons or true problems with poverty.
The press. That word has many meanings: freedom, information, first amendment, muckraking…corporate sellouts. I have had the experience of working with many press organizations over a range of different circumstances and events. Recently I again met up with the frenzy of journalists over the recent ‘Land Park Parking’ ordeal here on campus. As the Commissioner of Public Relations, I was responsible for a melange of various tasks: press releases, official speaker on behalf of the Student Government, responsible for notifying the public of ASG events and of course dealing with the press. Normally I simply have to work with The Express, which is usually an interesting if joyful experience. Yet when the students here were faced with loosing William Land Park for the community and students, we knew that the mainstream press would have to be involved. All of the local News channels were contacted, as well as the Sacramento Bee and the News and Review. Rally day came for the students to speak out against the parking clause, and the press did show up. I was in front of the camera several times that day, the off camera elitists didn’t seem to have the time of day for me. “Give me your sound bite, little man, and leave me alone.” It is indeed sad when a journalist takes this attitude- and makes me wonder if it is the system we live in that now has regulated and blanched the news into an appendage of fear and commercialized news… or if journalists simply do not care any more. Perhaps it is a mixture of both. The representatives from the stations really left me with a bad taste in my mouth- the kind of taste that one gets after eating baking powder and lemons. At this time, I was reading “The Mississippi Delta,” a grassroots biography from a young girl growing up in the heart of racism, and I realized that poverty is not only the true segregation de facto, it is the trump card for the press.
After finishing the book while on light rail, I got off and was letting this true, potent realization seep in. As I meandered on my way, I heard someone say: “hey, got any spare change?” I looked black and say a black man with wired, starving eyes. He was unshaven, un-kept and reeked of alcohol and waste. He and his friends changed my life. I reached into my pocket and tossed him some quarters and went on about my business for all of two paces. An epiphany- the world has so much poverty and that include Sacramento, a few steps away from my home- and yet I essentially was ignoring it, focusing on a more global perspective. I turned back then and asked the man how he was doing, realizing that there were two others sitting with him- of seemingly the same ethnicity and social status- and included them as well. All three were responsive and seemed rather surprised. Ensued was a four hour conversation, an awakening of sorts for my own ignorance. I would have probably stayed there all night if a police would not have been stalking these three disheveled gentlemen- guilty of nothing but being raped by the system, disenfranchised is a synonymous term for which these three were suffering from. It is interesting to look at the very word for which society coins for them: homeless. It is peculiar, as if every person should be required to have a home. After all, it is a crime to be idle- a misdemeanor of ‘loitering.’ The word homeless seems sociologically deviant- as if this is the only label that can be given to these victims of poverty. Yet the contrapositive is not reapplied. We do not call the rest of society “home-keepers.” The ironic nature of the nomenclature seems almost deceptive. To be homeless, or to be without shelter, is rather tepid compared to the realities of what a person must go through. Perhaps I should be critiquing linguistics for its lack of proper conveyance, instead of society that created the word. Indeed though, unlike the word “nuclear war,” in which we have quite a clear understanding of the implications, the word “homeless” truly does not give us such a sense of doom or understanding of what it means to be impoverished. This is something I thought about as I sat with these three men and indeed for a time after. I wondered why the poor problem was not being addressed, why in such a booming area as Sacramento and in a nation with such wealth really could allow poverty to be such a problem. I thought of the media instantly. My answer was simple: the media ignores and or exploits the poor in America, and indeed all over the world.Poverty is increasing all over the world, but especially in the United States. Last years’ census information reports that: poverty rates in 2001 were up to 11.7 percent- a four percent increase since last year. California’s rates have increased slightly- up a half a percent from 2000 (Census, WWW). The rates seemingly have been decreasing on a marginal level, or this is what the media tells us. Yet the facts simply do not support this. Furthermore, the media condones the misinformation. In a late 2000 article, shortly before he left office, President Bill Clinton reported that the status of those in poverty was “near a one percent drop,” obviously not the case (CNN, Sept. 2000). Not only do the poverty rates not reflect the proper inflation level, the rate at which poverty is determined is skewed. The Census Bureau defines its annual poverty threshold to be $17,029 for a family of four people (Census, WWW). When the per-capita income parity is observed, Americans have a thirty-six thousand dollar per-family income on average. Yet with an estimated thirty-three million people in this range of poverty- it is obvious that one tenth of our nation certainly does not fall within this median and is not being accounted for.
Moreover, the media fails to analyze the consumer price index (CPI) along with the marginal increase in wages over the same periods. The CPI is a measure of the average change in prices over time of goods and services purchased by households…CPIs are based on prices of food, clothing, shelter, and fuels, transportation fares, charges for doctors' and dentists' services, drugs, and other goods and services that people buy for day-to-day living. Prices are collected in 87 urban areas across the country from about 50,000 housing units and approximately 23,000 retail establishments- department stores, supermarkets, hospitals, filling stations, and other types of stores and service establishments (BLS, WWW). Over the past year, the CPI- or the cost of living- has risen 2.7 percent, according to the web site. An overall 1.7 percent increase occurred in 2001. So as the records show, the overall cost of living is going up- yet wages have only increased .6 percent over the last two years combined. This means that people cannot buy as much with the money they are making. What’s worse, is that service jobs- such as the ones most people in poverty would work- are being terminated through cyclical unemployment. The set price of where poverty occurs has stayed the same for the last five years- yet the figures are incorrect. The true scale of poverty should be set on an income scale of or around $26,000 – almost ten thousand dollars more than what it currently is an encompassing another ten-percent of the nation. Of course these figures do not even include the homeless, who are generally unaccounted for.When trying to research the estimated number of homeless in America, we truly see the media and political biases come into play. The media – as reported by Bernard Goldberg in his book “Bias”, has no real account of how many people are without shelter in the U.S. The number that is chosen is usually arbitrary or found from the source that the report wants to present as the most credible one- the one of their political bias. The number of homeless seems to range anywhere from a quarter million to two million. Yet the corporate media for all they are worth does not analyze these statistics or even try to give an explanation for poverty by showing the links to the public. One might retort to me by saying, “it’s not the job of the media to analyze or report outside the news.” Yet my response would have be their informa analysis of the homeless and poverty that show through their quotations on what ‘the analysts have to say.’ In almost every single CNN, NBC or CBS article on the homeless in the past year, when it comes down to addressing the problem, the reporters are quick to show “what is going to be done about it,” – usually giving recognition to those who they can gain favors from later and scuffing off the rest. None of the near one-hundred articles I searched through contained someone’s remarks as to why the problem has happened, what the causes are- just why it’s not getting better- which are usually responded to with attacks on a social program by a political group on another. Some may call this poor journalism, not exploitation- though it is obvious that the evasive tactics to avoid poverty, combined with the elitist approach is certainly used for exploiting the countries’ poor for those who want their names in the media.
The list of media atrocities on the poor grow- even locally we see some fine examples of media disservice. In a May 23 article in the Sacramento Bee, several statistics- of course not analyzed- were released on a report about women and poverty. The report listed that 37% of women in California are bellow the income poverty level, which we already established is misleading. Furthermore, several legislators and their various legislation bills were announced in the article- 12 legislators in all, as well as some local program directors of homeless organizations. The article seemed to focus and praise on the politicians, and is yet another example of bland exaltment to the technocrats of California- using quotations that again addressed seemingly self-evident passages such as; "No mother in California should have to choose between buying food for her children or paying her rent" (Rojas, SacBee). There were no questions asked of impoverished people. There were no impacts on what the types of legislation would accomplish. The media did a disservice to those reading, those who are going to be enforcing elected representatives to make decisions as well as passing initiatives, with any real news or understanding of what the information meant. Should we blame the media for this? Is it not our responsibility to do the research ourselves? This then should even make us question why media and news organizations exist. If not to give us all the pertinent information, with analysis from differing view points, what is it they are doing we must ask. They are paying homage to their corporate stockholders and political powers that be. Over the last year, the Los Angeles Times has reported on homelessness and poverty 63 times (LA Times, WWW). Out of all of these articles in their archive, none of them address reasons for poverty, viable solutions or give accurate statistics. Instead, every one of these articles focused on local charities- usually by a company or well endowed organization- or a sort of legislative action that was ‘dealing with the problem.’ Take for example an article a few days ago relating to San Francisco’s impoverished. “The former construction worker has lived along the tracks beside mounds of garbage and clutter for two years. Last week, he and other homeless people were forced to pack up their meager belongings after a city crackdown…”(AP Dec. 12 2002), the article begins. Once again, the news service, owned by media conglomerate America Online, introduce that the homeless man depicted has lived along the tracks for two years- as if that is where the story begins. There was no cause for his poverty, the article would have you understand. The news service goes on to quote people calling the homeless people trash-“"We're intolerant of people messing up the city," said Alex Mamak. "Our issue is the beautification or removing trash or litter from San Francisco." These people are equivocal to garbage, because they do not have a domicile as required by the system. Both sides, seemingly are brought into view: the homeless lobby who agree that the areas are a mess, but say that the cities homeless ‘clean-up’ is not the answer… and the city who wants these eye-sore’s to be gone. Yet no solutions are given. No people that are being actually affected by this- namely the poor who live by the tracks- were given a chance to plaster their words in the press. This is highly exploitative. The media treat poverty as an event, when indeed it is more than a camera shot or a sound bite- it is a lengthy, plight filled process in which investors in the media have no time to be bugged with or have their viewers worry about such things. We see examples in this not only in local and national news, but also in the international realm. “Each year half a million Indians die of tuberculosis, and more than 1.5 million Indian infants die of diarrhea. Yet you will not find two columns on these deaths because those who die are the wrong sort of people, not deserving of media attention” (Sainath). Reading this analysis by an independent media source out of India and we see yet one example of the Media’s disservice to the poor. Reading of the piece it is quite a familiar feeling. In fact, the world’s view of poverty is analogous with our own. The media treats disparity, distress and poverty as natural calamities – the rich/poor divide has always been there, in third world countries. The poor in the rich countries – all those guys – they're basically slackers and welfare cheats and single mothers feeding their alcoholism habit on welfare funds. Furthermore, the media denies any facts of free-market exploitation or their own part of the process (Sainath). India, which is ranked as second in the hard number of impoverished people- somewhere around fifty million says the CIA World Fact book. Indeed, with such a problem, people do certainly do their best to help the poor- right? Mistaken thou art. This passage from the same article is the epicenter of the problem:
While newspapers and magazines write stories about the top ten schools in India – the schools where Microsoft and Oracle do their "body-shopping" – there is no mention of the 30 out of 100 children that never receive any schooling at all. Out of the 70 who enter first grade, another 35 drop out by the fifth because of economic pressures. Of the remaining 35, only 10 make it through junior high, and a mere five actually graduate from high school. The system manages to get rid of all the undesirables before they come to college and lead demonstrations.
Even more haunting are the hundreds of worldwide acclaims to fame of organizations, and famous people donating money- putting band-aids on open wounds that need surgery to heal. Yet this is what makes it into the international press. The preponderance of evidence showing media ignorance, covering, disinformation and exploitation has been brought forth. Yet we must ask the overall question of: what impact does this have on poverty and those suffering from it?
The answer to the question can easily be surmised. All you would have had to do is ask Salt Lake City and Atlanta’s homeless right before and after the Olympic games were held there. But wait- unfortunately, your patrons were not there. It is not because they did not exist before, or do not exist now- but because of legislation that allowed the two cities to ‘clean-up’ and extradite, force or erase the ones there. Homeless rights groups [in Atlanta] documented 9000 [homeless] arrests between May 1995 and May 1996, four times greater than earlier years (Dixon, WWW).Furthermore, policies in Atlanta were passed such as anti-loitering and anti-begging by-laws- an ordinance that allows police to arrest people in car parks who are "acting in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals". Similar laws were created in Salt-Lake City prior to the Olympic Games (Dixon, WWW). None of these policies were in the news under their true intent- to wipe out the ‘bane’ of middle-class suburbia: the idea that inequity still exists around them. The impact of this media ignorance further allows other legislators to use the poor for their own gain. For example, President Bush. “His view, [is that] the poor are poor because of bad choices. Many Americans agree with him, and supported wholeheartedly tough welfare reform measures in 1996 that restricted their family size, locked them up for fraud and minor drug infractions, and punished children for their parents’ mistakes. The sentiment of such programs is if we can just make the poor "more like us," they will be much better off. Welfare has ceased being an anti-poverty tool and became instead an array of behavior modifiers (Pieper). These insinuations that President Bush are completely sound- as he was reciprocated his policies towards the poor from his Texas reign, nationally. Just recently in fact, Bush cut all funding to the PERKINS loan, which subsidizes education costs for poor students. Moreover, over the past two years, health and drug funding has decreased 20% that would otherwise go to needy families and homeless patients.
Our foreign policies on poverty mire our domestic ones. An example cited by Oxfam International: the African country of Mali received $37 million in U.S. aid last year, but lost $43 million to falling export prices for cotton, which is heavily subsidized in the United States (Sac Bee Oct 10 2002). Our loans and subsidies to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund make thousands rich, and keep almost seven hundred million poor. Yet the media do not report these things, and thus, the impoverished and poor continue to suffer. They do not account for the different perspectives on poverty nor do they relate back to the causes of poverty- never quite making that leap, or mentioning such politically unsavory words as ‘exploitation’ in their reports and articles. As a result, citizens of all different regions of the world are not only misinformed, but rubber stamp legislation that does not help the homeless.Out of fourteen hundred homeless shelters in America, all of them have different bureaucratic rules that limit the type of help they can give, that often ostracize the people they are trying to help. In fact, most women who need medical need will not get it, for fear of being reported to local authorities- since in California the homeless are required to have pre-natal care, by law. Women, men, children- all are affected. Yet President Bush calls for a policy of assimilation (Pieper). Certainly the Dawes Act more than a century ago and the attempted assimilation of the Native Americans still have no bearing on people’s decisions. The fear instilled in the homeless and impoverished keep them from getting the aid that is out there, and yet they know better than all of us that shelters and food drives are a temporary fix- so many avoid it and the people who think they’re helping the poor. The media has undermined the processes of reform and restructure and therefore their actions are not only exploitative to the poor, but to the very people they claim to serve: the people.
The statistics and evidence can shed no doubt that the media, of which eight conglomerate firms now control 85%, is collectively killing off the poverty problem in America- and not through getting rid of it, but by not showing what it really is. Through it’s inaction to report these crimes of humanity, failure to analyze and place proper data and impervious attempts to ignore the people truly affected but instead glamorize those with pocket books, America’s media has failed-miserably. The outcome of this exploitation is a catch of itself- further exploitation by big business and big brother. Unfortunately any who speak out about this in the mainstream are derided as fools who overstep their bounds as overt objective reports. No, instead the press insights fear of the eyesores that plague the street, or a bit of hope in the charities they splash on their respective mediums. However perhaps the media and it’s leaders do not intentionally exploit its followers and the victims of poverty, yet it still painfully exists. It will continue until we do something about it.
Associated Press. Dec. 12 2002. “San Francisco Revamps Homeless Policy.”
CNN Staff. Sept. 26 2002. “Census Bureau: U.S. Poverty Rates Lowest in Twenty Years.” CNN Online.
Dixon, Norm. 2002. “Atlanta Olympics: poor pay the price.” Green Left Organization Online.
Goldberg, Bernard. “Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News.” December 2001. Regency Publishing, New York, NY.
Piper, Chris. 1999. “How Dubya sees the poor.” BraveNews World.
Rojas, Aurelio. May 23 2002. “Poverty Common for Single Women.” The Sacramento Bee.
SacBee Editorial Staff. Oct. 10 2002. Article: “Poverty Persists.” The Sacramento Bee, Sac. CA.
Sainath, Palagummi. June 19 2002. “Poverty, Market Fundamentalism and the Media.” Alterne Independent Media Source. < http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=11059>
U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. 2001. “Consumer Price Index projection.”