Since its advent, television has become the predominant means in which Americans have come to learn about themselves and the issues of the day. But television has done a poor job of presenting some of the most important issues facing America, that of class and race. Gregory Mantsios was correct when he wrote in his essay, “Class in America: Myths and Realities,” that the “institutions that shape mass culture and define the parameters of public debate have avoided class issues.” (Rereading 319) But he failed to realize that television, particularly the evening news, does deal with class and race but in ways that skew the debate rather than add clarification.
The news, both local and network broadcasts, tends to perpetuate stereotypes of the underclass and present an inaccurate depiction of poverty. Their avoidance of class issues is driven by a desire to pursue high ratings and the demographics, primarily middle class or the 18 to 49 year old age group, that are the most appealing to advertisers. But, in doing so, not only does the news media help create inaccurate perceptions of class and poverty in America, it also leads the public to want political or legislative answers to problems that exacerbate rather than resolve them.
Studies have shown that the gap between the haves and the have-nots have widened in the past eight years since the beginning of the longest economic expansion in American history. The United States has one of the highest ratios in income gaps between the rich and the poor in any industrialized nation. The top 1% of U.S. families has risen to 78%, while more than the middle fifth of the population saw their income decline by 5.3 %. (Mantsios 321). Yet, you’d be hard-pressed to hear those facts on the evening news. During the economic expansion, which was driven by the high-tech stock bubble, stories about twentysomethings who were getting rich after their startup dot-coms went public on Wall Street and high-tech giants such as Cisco Systems were the norm. Jeff Bezos, the president formerly of AOL (now AOL Time Warner), was the darling of Time magazine who, in 1999, had named him their “Person of the Year.” CNBC had trumpeted the stocks of these Internet startups and “Good Morning America” had featured the mascot from Pets.com, a sock puppet, on its program (it was later discovered that Disney Corp., which is the parent company of “Good Morning America,” also owned stocks of Pets.com before it went out of business, much to the embarrassment of Diane Sawyer, one of the hosts on the morning news program).
“Nightline,” also from ABC News, did a story on the lifestyles and social habits, or lack thereof, of these newly-minted Silicon Valley millionaires. A year later, just as the high-tech bubble was starting to burst, they ran a story about two young men and their travails in getting investments for their dot-com startup. These stories gave the impression that everybody in America was rolling in wealth. Indeed, many of the reports concluded that more and more Americans were investing on Wall Street (advertisers also gave this impression with ads for investment firms clogging the airwaves, especially during news programs).
While it is true that the number of Americans who had money in the stock market has risen thanks to 401k plans, what these reports did not say was that a large majority had only $1,000 invested in stocks, while the top 1 % of Americans owned more than 75% of stocks on Wall Street.
When the high-tech bubble burst, the stories then shifted to how these now suddenly unemployed workers in Silicon Valley were faring. Reports focused on pink-slip parties that were being held in San Jose and San Francisco and the subsequent job searches of the unemployed. The media also offered viewers ideas on how to get new jobs, such as resume and interviewing tips.
The end of the economic expansion, which began under President Clinton, and was now ending at the end of his tenure, offered pundits and business analysts the opportunity to scratch their heads and wonder how the bubble could have gotten so enormous in the first place. None were quick to lay the blame at their own feet, since they were the ones who “talked-up” these stocks to their viewers and readers, even though there were no discernible evidence that these startups were making or were going to make a profit. It should also be stated that many of these analysts, such as the ones on CNBC, were heavily invested in the reputation of these companies since many owned stocks in them as well.
Lost in all of this dialogue about wealth were the middle class and the poor in America. While small-time investors were losing money on stocks that were going belly-up, analysts and investment bankers were making a killing. Since many of them knew from the get-go that these companies had no promise of making a profit, they got out when the first signs of trouble appeared on the horizon and were able to recoup their investments (the Enron debacle is but one extreme case of this). But if the reality of middle-class Americans during the late nineties was left unreported, the story of the underclass became taboo.
To suggest that there were still poor people in America during this expansion period was anathema to the narrative many of the news media and politicians were spinning about how more Americans were benefiting from the economic boom. After President Clinton signed the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, he, along with other politicians, hailed it as a success when more than 7 million people were moved off the welfare rolls. The news media followed suit in its appraisal of the Act. But the successes of the Welfare Reform Act were much more complex than was being reported.
Yes, more women were off welfare and working, but many of the jobs that these former recipients had were often low-wage. In the Bay Area, where one must earn a living wage of $25.99 an hour in order to survive, the average welfare recipient in Contra Costa County was earning $9.11 in newly placed jobs (source: Contra Costa County Employment & Human Services, CA Budget Project, Contra Costa West County Times). Child care, housing, and education were issues that were also woefully addressed. A few years after the signing of the act, food harvest banks around the country began reporting that more and more people were requesting their services. They singled out the Welfare Reform Act as but one of many reasons why so many people were going hungry. While some news outlets, such as newspapers, reported on these issues, most, particularly broadcast news, glossed over these facts.
When the news media does report on the poor and the underclass, their depiction often paints an inaccurate picture of poverty. According to the media, the faces of the poor tend to be black or Latino and always criminal-minded. Such portrayals are simplistic and do not present poverty in all its diversity and complexity. While most stories about welfare recipients tend to feature black women, the reality is that the majority of women on welfare are white. Another face of the poor are the elderly, many of whom are dependent solely on Social Security for subsistence – -a fact that is mentioned during newscasts but only when they report on the various political wranglings in Washington, D.C. over Social Security. The poor also often reside in the suburbs, another fact that is rarely mentioned in the news (though to its credit, “Nightline,” did a story on this issue a few years back, following several suburban families who relied on harvest banks for food).
The news continue to prefer the stereotypical depiction of the poor living in crime-riddled ghettoes. But it is the children who are the real faces of destitution. America has the highest rate of child poverty than any other industrialized country. More than a quarter of all children under the age of six in the United States live in poverty, according to Mantsios (Rereading 321). But when children are the subject of news stories, they are usually shown as perpetrators of vicious crimes, not victims of hunger, housing shortages, or inadequate education.
Crime stories make up the bulk of reports on the evening and network news. In a 1997 study published by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), coverage of violent crimes on the network evening news rose over 700% between 1993 and 1996. Though 9/11 briefly pushed many other crime stories off the radar screen, they have not disappeared entirely from news programs. In spite of the fact that crime has gone down since the early nineties, the media insists on cluttering their newscasts with crime stories, the more lurid the better.
The phrase “If it bleeds, it leads” came out of the local news directors’ edict about what stories get top priority on evening newscasts and what don’t. While the tabloidization of crime stories have always been fairly egalitarian (the murder of JonBenet Ramsey being one recent example), there are stark differences in how crimes committed by the middle class or rich and crimes committed by the poor and people of color are covered by the media, particularly on talk radio and through the pundit class. One perfect example is how the news media covered the Columbine shootings in 1999 and the Lionel Tate trial of 2001.
When teenagers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stormed into the hallways of Columbine High School in 1999, killing 18 of their school mates before turning their guns on themselves, America was stunned by the sheer enormity of the act (which also included plans to blow up the school) and the number of innocent lives lost in the carnage, in spite of the fact that similar school shootings by juveniles had occurred in the two-year period prior to this. Immediately after the incident, Americans, with the media acting as mediator, began to question why two young teenagers from seemingly well-to-do-homes would be driven to such a violent and cruel act. Everyone, from talk shows on twenty-four hour cable news networks like CNN and Fox News Network, to morning news programs such as the “Today Show” and “Good Morning America,” brought on psychology experts, legal analysts, politicians, police chiefs, social commentators, and the occasional celebrity media whore to sift through the remains of these two young men’s minds and sort out what could have been the cause of the shootings.
Their answers were varied. While some suggested that these young men were the victims of school bullying by the sports jocks at their school, others said that violent media, such as video games and music by artists like Marilyn Manson and the Insane Clown Posse, were the real culprits. Conservatives bemoaned the fact that God and religion had been taken out of our nation’s learning institutions and that had the Ten Commandments been posted in this school, perhaps these terrible killings would not have occurred (ironically, Columbine, Colorado is a heavily religious community).
Liberals stated that the communities rigid social atmosphere ostracized young people who were deemed “different” or “weird” or who simply did not fit in. Goths and the so-called “Trenchcoat Mafia” also had fingers pointed in their direction, causing a backlash against them across the country (days after the Columbine killings, Goth teenagers reported being harassed not only by other class mates but by school administrators, as well). What was particularly strange about all this need for explaining “cause and effect,” especially from conservatives, was that had Klebold and Harris been poor and black or Latino, and such explanations were made to understand their behavior, those making such explanations would have been excoriated for “blaming society for the behavior of individuals.” Such criticism is leveled all the time when violence in poor communities of color are dissected for explanation.
When 14-year old Lionel Tate was sentenced to life without parole, making him the youngest person to be handed such a sentence in United States history, for brutally beating his six-year old friend Tiffany Eunick to death, there were few suggestions out of the media that Tate, like Klebold and Harris, was a victim of violent media. While all concerned, including the prosecutors, were shocked when Broward County judge Joe Lazarus delivered his harsh sentence, no one disagreed with the jury’s assessment in rejecting the defense counsels claims that Tate had merely been influenced by the WWF and was trying to copy the moves he had seen made by such wrestlers as Hulk Hogan and the Rock on little Tiffany when he killed her.
Television pundits also uniformly rejected this defense claim. They made note of the young man’s size as opposed to 6-year old Tiffany’s and how he should have been old enough to know his own strength. While there were a few who came out in defense of Lionel Tate, and all agreed with the prosecutors and defense attorneys that the judge’s sentence was too harsh, even going so far as to suggest that Governor Jeb Bush of Florida should commute the sentence, few of these pundits offered the same empathy to Tate or the need to understand his motives as they had with Klebold and Harris two years earlier. The cases of the young man, also in Florida, who shot and killed his teacher, or the now-disputed “wilding” beatings of a New York City female jogger over a decade ago, were presented in the media as examples of amoral, pathological “super predator” (i.e. poor, black teenagers) let loose in our nation’s cities.
It would be easy to brush off criticism of how the media covered the Columbine shootings as opposed to other crime stories, particularly those committed by the poor or people of color, as just another example of bleeding-heart liberals playing the “race card” or “class warfare,” the criticism de jour leveled at any one who dares bring up the problems of classism and racism in this country. After all, the media was just as brutal against the Ramsey family and even speculated whether JonBenet’s parents or her brother were the ones responsible for her death. But the media’s harshness against the Ramsey family is beyond the point. What matters is the fact that not all wealthy white families were judged critically for pathological deviance as the underclass or blacks often are in similar cases.
The Ramseys, who were never charged with anything regarding JonBenet’s death (in fact no one has been charged in her murder. Her case is still unsolved), were treated as a rare but interesting abnormality, like the phenomenon of conjoined twins, in the pristine heart of well-to-do Colorado. In the media, the message is clear: the poor or blacks or Latinos, when they are accused of a crime, are considered “common” pathological problems and must be “locked up” and out of society’s way, while white collar or middle-class criminals are considered “aberrant” in relation to their race and social status, and whose causes of deviancy must be analyzed, understood and, wherever necessary, corrected.
The news media’s skewing of race and class can have devastating results. Since most Americans receive their information from television news, and broadcast and cable news fail to show the complexities of the problems associated with poverty, the solutions to these problems are often as simplistic and knee-jerk as the rhetoric associated with politicians. Politicians routinely pander to the middle class for votes and the wealthy for campaign donations. Middle and working class fears of crime and their anger toward “welfare queens” and “quota blacks” are just as easily exploited. During the 80s, Reagan and social conservatives had painted such a vivid portrait of women on welfare as driving around in limousines and living high off the hog on taxpayer’s dollars that by the time Democrat Bill Clinton ran for office in 1992 it was on a stump of reforming welfare. While it may be true that some welfare recipients during the 1980s had “ripped off” the system, they paled in comparison to the numbers of men who had “ripped off” thousands of the elderly in the S&L scandals (one of these men was also the son of the then vice-president and brother of current president George W. Bush).
Conservatives were successful at painting this image of welfare mothers because many had the bully pulpit of talk radio and television programs such as the “McLaughlin Group,” not to mention a president in the White House whose skills at communication are considered near legendary, to spread their word. It also helped that many blue-collar Americans who bought this portrayal were angry at anyone for not pulling their fair weight, despite the fact that they were among the many suffering from the same Reaganesque policies that hurt the poor and favored the wealthy and elites.
Two other examples of how the news media affects legislation are the drug crime laws and California’s “Three Strikes” law. During the eighties, when crack became a scourge in urban cities across America, stories of drive-by shootings, gang wars, and killings associated with the drug became a nightly feature on the local and network news. Programs, such as “Nightline,” even ran town hall meetings to discuss the issue. While much of the violence and drug abuse were seemingly relegated to poor, urban, and black communities (surveys have shown that the average drug user is actually a white male in his twenties), stories of crimes associated with crack engendered the worst of working and middle class fears, regardless of race.
When the media introduced the term “carjacking” into the American lexicon, politicians responded and toughened laws against abuse and crimes associated with crack that today, in states like California, are now being repealed or softened (during the 2000 election, the California electorate overwhelmingly voted for Prop. 36, which diverted nonviolent drug offenders out of overcrowded prisons and jails and into rehab treatment). Many believed that these drug laws were inconsistent. Poor blacks who were caught selling or using drugs were given tougher sentences than white, middle class defendants, due to the different charges applied to crack against cocaine (President Bush’s impetus to add Ecstasy to the list of criminalized drugs will add an interesting wrinkle to this issue since most Ecstasy users tend to be white and middle class).
In 1994, the nation was riveted when a little girl named Polly Klaas was abducted out of her home in Petaluma and subsequently murdered by Richard Allen Davis. The local and national news followed every turn in the investigation of her kidnapping and disappearance right up to the breaking news story of the discovery of her body and through her murderer’s trial and conviction. Much of the nation was stunned to learn after Davis was arrested that he had been a career criminal, veering in and out of the system like a yo-yo when there were clear signs that he was a danger to society.
While such crimes as the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas are aberrant and that children are murdered every year by someone they know, a parent for instance, the Klaas’s kidnapping fed into every parents’ fear. Concerned citizens, victims’ relatives, and politicians got together and created Prop. 184, which would go on to become known as the “Three Strikes” law. Those who are convicted on their third “strike” felony, are given a rigid “25 years to life” sentence, with little discretion on the part of the judge. The law was meant to frighten criminals from committing crimes and put those who have behind bars where they belong for a long time. While it would be simplistic to suggest that the media’s coverage of the Klaas kidnapping led to this law, it isn’t too hard to suggest that the media’s history of playing up their crime stories with their “if it leads, it bleeds” mentality has conditioned a society that was desperate enough for any solution to the crimes that bedeviled it. Experts, defense attorneys, and the police, now contend that the “Three Strikes” law has had deleterious effects on the criminal justice system.
They provide examples such as the case of the man who was given 25 years to life for stealing a bicycle as proof that the law allows no middle ground in sentencing. In fact, one of the reasons why Prop 36 won was because its proponents had successfully proven that because of the overcrowded prisons due to the “Three Strikes” law locking up nonviolent drug offenders would save taxpayer money. Still, politicians and prosecutors contend that “Three Strikes” does work, pointing to the decreased crime rates in California as evidence. But criminal justice expects such as the ones at the RAND Corporation and Alfred Blumenstein, a criminal justice professor at Carnegie Mellon University, have done studies that suggest that crime rates in states that have no “Three Strikes” laws on their books have lowered to the same comparable rates in California, and that even counties, such as San Francisco, where the law is leniently applied, have seen the same lowered crime rates comparable to counties where “Three Strikes” is vigorously applied, such as in Kern or Los Angeles. Still, the appetite for “get tough on crime” laws is strong in California. The same year that Prop. 36 won, another proposition, Prop. 21, which called for tougher sentencing on juvenile criminals, had won, this despite the fact that the juvenile crime rates, especially among black teens, have been dropping dramatically since 1993 (Prop. 21 was placed on the law books when school shootings at Columbine and Santee, California were still the subject of debate on television).
Ever since President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and even before then, media outlets have been consolidating in ever greater numbers. Now news outlets, which in the past were not expected to be great moneymakers since the prestige of having a good news organization was well worth a network’s reputation, were now expected to hew the bottom-line. News rooms were slashed to make them more cost effective, leaving little room, time, or resources to fully investigate complex stories. While some news outlets still continue to try to tell good stories about issues that affect this country (such as Nightline’s women in prison series a few years back), most tend to pursue stories that are ratings grabbers – -sex scandals such as the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and Gary Condit and Chandra Levy scandals, shark attacks, and celebrity fluff interviews.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks shifted this focus somewhat (the news media certainly deserve praise for going three days straight without advertising, losing millions of ad dollars in the process, to deliver the latest news of the attacks and their aftermath), but that, it turns out, was an anomaly. Unfortunately, this “diversion” away from information that any informed citizenry needs in order to preserve the integrity of a democratic country, harms democracy in the process. Clearly, after 9/11, many Americans, ignorant of world news and current events, were ill-prepared to understand how and why such pernicious attacks could have occurred in the first place. They were even more unwilling to debate or understand the complexities and the possible consequences of the direction the president was leading this nation in his handling of the so-called “War on Terrorism.” The news media, in turn, followed their lead and largely avoided questioning policy. Whether it’s dealing with issues such as poverty, race, crime, foreign or domestic policy, the mainstream news media fails to live up to its responsibilities, which are enshrined in our nation’s Constitution.