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Barbara Ehrenreich: Why Are Working People Invisible in the Mainstream Media?

Ehrenreich talks to Amy Dean about the crisis of economic insecurity, the invisibility of working people in the mainstream media, and the current state of journalism.

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Playing devil's advocate, I suggested that many people would respond to a story like that by saying they're not sympathetic, because the person broke the law.

"That's something that we're coming up against," Ehrenreich said. "Do we always have to be worried that when we present somebody who's economically struggling that there's going to be the same response? I've been around the country talking about people in poverty and there will be somebody in the audience that says, 'Well, do they smoke cigarettes?' People can be very good at finding out how poor people could improve their [own] lives, instead of looking at something like wage theft, where employers are stealing billions of dollars every year."

I asked about what influence unions could have on the coverage of working people, and about the role of labor media - citing examples such as the Newspaper Guild, the St. Paul Union Advocate and the Milwaukee Labor Press.

"I think that the union-created media is not very prominent," Ehrenreich responded. "There is no union media that is reaching out beyond its members, right now - or very little. People in the labor movement always talk about having radio shows and channels and so on, and it doesn't happen. I don't know what's up with that."

"Certainly, it's confusing when you're a writer. There are so many outlets now, but you don't get paid. I've had the experience in the last two months of having something go really viral on those sorts of outlets, including some very mainstream places. If reporters could afford to do the work, there are readers waiting to get to them."

"We're at a point now where that mainstream media is in a state of collapse," she noted. "It's just not there. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans is down to three newspaper reporters. The kind of reporters who might have been doing reporting on economic hardship in 1995 for major newspapers are long gone, eliminated."

Exploring the issue of lack of pay for writers, I asked Ehrenreich to talk about the Economic Hardship Reporting Project she has started.

"There's a big problem now: you can't get paid if you're a writer. A lot of stories aren't being told; a lot of work isn't being done; because the people who would like to do it can't work for free."

"I started the Economic Hardship Reporting Project back in 2009," she continued. "I was very frustrated by the coverage of the recession in the mainstream press. What coverage there was focused on things like people who had to cut back on their personal trainers. It was hardship for the wealthy. I contacted The New York Times and said, 'I would like to do a series of essays on the effect of the recession on those people who are already struggling.' I got a contract. I did a series of four pieces, which were well displayed in the Sunday newspapers. But I realized in the course of it that I was not really being paid enough even to cover my expenses."

"I was at the same time watching my son, who was also a freelance writer, trying to get paid enough to do the kind of work he wanted to do. He would be doing something for The Nation about tent cities for a couple hundred dollars. And he was saying, 'I can't do this; I just can't do it.' Those were the personal experiences that led to the idea of raising money to pay journalists to do innovative coverage of the issues related to poverty and economic inequality and hardship."

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