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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.

Copyright, Reprinted with permission

Best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich - probably best known for her 2001 book "Nickel and Dimed" - has long been on the forefront of promoting stories about working people in an often hostile media environment. Recently, she has been heading the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. An endeavor inspired in part by the Federal Writers Project of the 1930s, the initiative aims "to force this country's crisis of poverty and economic insecurity to the center of the national conversation."

I spoke with Ehrenreich about this crisis of economic insecurity, about the invisibility of working people in the mainstream media, and about the current state of journalism.

That working people are chronically underrepresented in the media - even in times of economic downturn - is a sad reality readily apparent to anyone who has surveyed the American news landscape. Given this, I asked Ehrenreich if she thought this problem has been a constant, or if has it gotten worse in recent years.

"It's always been something of a problem," she said, "for two reasons. The first reason I discovered in my years as a freelance writer in the 1980s and 90s. That is: magazines and newspapers want to please their advertisers. Their advertisers want to think they are reaching wealthy people, people who will buy the products. They don't want really depressing articles about misery and hardship near their ads."

"The other reason is that typically the gatekeepers in these media outlets, the top editors and producers, have been from a social class quite far removed from what we are talking about. They have no clue. I found that this could be very, very dispiriting."

"I remember pitching a story to an editor in the 1980s. It had something to do with working-class men. The editor said, 'Well, can they talk?'"

"It's almost otherworldly," Ehrenreich continued. "The editors would use the word 'articulate,' as in, 'Could you find someone articulate?' Like the rest of the people are just going around grunting. Those are two long-standing structural forces against good coverage in the media."

Next, I asked Ehrenreich about the power of telling individuals' stories and how she approached storytelling in her work. The question produced an unexpected exchange.

"I actually don't focus on storytelling," Ehrenreich answered. "I've heard that said about my work before, but I don't know where that comes from ..."

I contended that "Nickel and Dimed," which told of her time working a number of low-wage jobs in the service sector, clearly had a lot to do with relating the stories of her co-workers.

"It's about me, though," Ehrenreich responded. "It's a story about me; first person. I was not in a position to really tell people's stories. I could just describe the work."

She continued: "My feeling about the coverage of poverty is that we have had a lot of stories. There's the story of a hard-working, good person or family, ground down to nothing. We all quietly read and say, 'Oh yes, gee, this is terrible; these nice decent people.' Well, I don't think that's enough anymore. I don't think that does the trick. I want stories that really make you indignant."

"One of the things that I focus on is how easy it is now to get into serious trouble with the law because you don't have much money - and then to get poorer and poorer because you get in serious trouble with the law. The classic example would be if you have a broken headlight on your car, but you can't fix it because that would cost over $100. So you get stopped by the police, and you get a fine of maybe $100 or $200. If you could have paid that, you could have fixed the damn light! Now you have this debt to the government. If you don't pay that, you begin to be in really big trouble that just builds and builds. More fines and fees are added, and they will all accumulate interest too. At some point, if you haven't paid, you are very likely to have a warrant out for your arrest."

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