SOLOMON: News That Really Matters

Two days after many TV networks aired every moment of Bill Clinton's grand-jury testimony, several members of Congress teamed up with researchers and activists for a dramatic forum about "economic human rights." The independent hearing focused on matters of profound importance -- and the big news media ignored it.The gathering took place on Capitol Hill, right under the noses of the Washington press corps. And the media establishment stayed away in droves. Not a single TV camera was there. In fact, hardly any journalists showed up."Thirty million Americans are hungry," notes the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, which helped to organize the Sept. 23 forum. Somewhere between 5 million and 7 million are homeless. "More than 40 million Americans have no health insurance. And the country has the highest rate of child poverty among the industrialized countries."The institute emphasizes that "hunger is not an accident, in the U.S. or anywhere else. There is no scarcity of food in the world. Certainly there's no shortage here in America." Yet, "the number of hungry people in America has increased by half since 1985."While we keep being told that the nation's economy is robust, inequities continue to widen. "Sure, there are more millionaires than ever in the U.S.," says Food First. "But for every new millionaire, there are countless new hungry people for whom $100 or $200 a month in food stamps is the only safeguard against malnutrition, even starvation."So, why don't we hear more about hunger in the United States? A key factor is the media industry's fixation on demographics. "Because the mass media is aimed at the people with the highest disposable income, we see pictures of hunger overseas, but not our own," Food First observes. "Perhaps that's a reason why the growth of the Hunger Class has been ignored politically."The forum on economic human rights included testimony from scholars. But there were also firsthand accounts of being hungry in America. "It isn't that I never worked," said a grandmother named Katherine Engles. "I worked since I was 14 years old. The jobs that are out there -- you are not making enough in order to live. Mothers go hungry at night so their children can eat."In the glazed-over eyes of editors in Washington, her words were not significant. But they remain: "When you are hungry, it's really hard. Sometimes, I would psyche myself to a cup of tea and try to make myself feel as though I just ate a full-course meal even though I didn't. Sometimes, I would roll bread up into little dough balls to try to fill myself up. It gets to a point where you kind of get used to it. Till today, I can't eat no more than one meal a day. It's what I am used to, and even today it's about all we can afford anyway."And, she added: "I keep looking at the bigger issue. What's ahead for our children, our grandchildren? What is ahead for them?"Engles was one of 200 people, many of them poor, who filled the room in the Rayburn House Office Building to support a "Fairness Agenda for America." The media odds were stacked against them -- and not only because of the frenzy over President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.Major media outlets have usually stayed away from efforts to challenge economic disparities. Traditional news judgment dictates that journalists tread lightly on the subject of who really wields the economic power -- and at whose expense -- in the United States.(Although media gatekeepers blocked the recent forum in Washington, plenty of information is available -- at www.foodfirst.org and www.netprogress.org -- on the Web.)People fighting for economic human rights have always had an uphill battle for space in the mass media. Now, the media terrain is tilted against them more than ever.Can you imagine what would have happened this year, if the news media concentrated on hunger in America with the same fierce determination that has pervaded coverage of sex near the Oval Office? By now, life would be much better for a lot of children who will go to bed hungry tonight.

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