SOLOMON: You Never Had It So Good

The truth about America today depends on where you sit. And you probably don't sit in TV studios.You may feel like you're working harder for less. Maybe you worry about medical coverage or job security or retirement. Maybe you're troubled by continuing signs of deterioration in many cities and towns.If so, you're ignorant. For some time now, prominent news professionals have done their best to explain that you never had it so good.The wise ones are trying to set you straight. This country is doing great. What you see every day may tell you different -- but who are you going to believe, your two eyes or the most esteemed journalists in America?If you sat in network TV studios on a regular basis, you'd be in a better position to appreciate the dazzling terrain of Punditry Zone '98. The gamut runs from complacency to optimism.Nothing in the news media epitomizes this zone more than "Washington Week in Review." Airing on PBS television stations each Friday night, with several journalists talking around a table for half an hour, the program has a national audience of 3.2 million people."Washington Week in Review" began this year by letting viewers know just how contented they are."It's a different country, politically, than it was at the start of this decade," said David Broder of The Washington Post. "The level of anger is down. Frustration is less. When you go out and talk with people, they're just more ready to look at the hopeful side of things."The main reason, Broder added, is the economy: "It has not 'raised all boats' ... but it has certainly raised spirits for a lot of our fellow Americans." Minutes later, when Los Angeles Times reporter Ron Brownstein picked up the theme, he emphasized that "an awful lot of positive trends are coalescing suddenly in the cities."Sitting at the same table seven days earlier, another "Washington Week in Review" regular, Alan Murray of The Wall Street Journal, was in similar high spirits as he hailed trickle-down affluence: "Inequality, which had gotten worse in the '70s and '80s, did start to get better in the last couple of years in spite of the stories you see about enormous CEO salaries and so forth. People at the bottom are moving up."These days, many journalists sound like Broder, Brownstein and Murray. The echo effect is so loud that contrary information can barely be heard. Yet it's available.At the Economic Policy Institute, a few miles from the "Washington Week in Review" studio, economist Jared Bernstein is well outside Punditry Zone '98. "Low-wage workers have been taking it on the chin for two decades now," he told me. "Over the last year -- thanks to tight labor markets, the increase in the minimum wage and low rates of inflation -- they've gained back a bit of the ground they've lost. That doesn't mean the battle's over."If the savants on "Washington Week" picked up the Jan. 12 issue of The Nation magazine, they'd find plenty of facts raining on their upbeat parade. For instance:* "Poverty is increasing," The Nation reports. "The poverty rate last year, 13.7 percent, was higher than in 1989, despite seven years of nearly uninterrupted growth. Approximately 50 million Americans -- 19 percent of the population -- live below the national poverty line."* "The working poor are losing ground. In constant dollars, average weekly earnings for workers went from a high of $315 in 1973 down to $256 in 1996, a decline of 19 percent."* "Income inequality is increasing. Last year, the poorest fifth of families saw their income decline by $210, while the richest 5 percent gained an average of $6,440 (not counting their capital gains)."Silence about such facts surely doesn't bother top execs at Ford Motor Co., which has underwritten "Washington Week in Review" ever since 1979. Currently, Ford gives the program $1 million a year -- nearly two-thirds of its entire budget.Ford's chief executive has announced that the company will soon post unprecedented figures for last year. "It is pretty clear now," he said, "that we will have a record year in terms of profits for 1997." Like many other huge firms, Ford never had it so good.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."

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