In the Jan. 19 issue of The New Yorker, Karl Rove told the writer Ken Auletta that President Bush thinks the press is "elitist," that "the social and economic backgrounds of most reporters have nothing in common with those of most Americans." For decades now, the political Right has made considerable hay out of the liberal elite bogeyman, and such a sentiment from Bush might be dismissed as mere culture-war blather. But class, which is what the president really means, will play a role in the coming election: tax cuts, unemployment, corporate greed, health care, the echo of John Edwardss "two Americas."
And Bush is right. Sort of. The class divide between journalists and the poor and working-class Americans many of us claim to write for and about is real, though it has little to do with political ideology and is more complicated than the faux populists of the Right would have us believe. Russell Baker, the former New York Times columnist, got closer to the mark in the Dec. 18 issue of The New York Review of Books. "Todays top-drawer Washington news- people ... belong to the culture for which the American political system works exceedingly well," he wrote. "The capacity for outrage had been bred out of them."
So much for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. As Baker points out, we are the comfortable. The demographics confirm it. We are part of the professional class, reasonably affluent and well educated. By 1996, for example, the last time the American Society of Newspaper Editors conducted a broad survey of the U.S. newsroom, 89 percent of journalists had finished college. Meanwhile, only 27 percent of all Americans have four or more years of college, according to the latest census.
Yet numbers alone cant explain the uneven and often subtle contours of this story. The press has the power to shape how people think about whats important, in effect to shape reality. But whose reality is being depicted? This is how the class divide between journalists and a large swath of the populace comes into play.
Just one example: Andrew Tyndall, a media analyst who began measuring the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC in 1987, finds that since then coverage of economic issues has steadily skewed away from stories of poverty and toward stories concerning wealth. Thus, the poor have become increasingly invisible. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the social justice arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reported in 2002 that its annual survey of American attitudes toward poverty showed that "the general public substantially underestimates the dimensions of poverty in the United States." Most respondents, it said, "maintained that poverty affects some one million people in this country." The real number is thirty-five million.
This divide, this inability of one America to see and understand the other Americas, has something to do with the collective howl from the mainstream press over the "offshoring" of white-collar jobs -- turning Lou Dobbs into a protectionist -- after years of writing off blue-collar job losses as the price of progress. And with why the Democratic candidates anti-poverty policies were all but ignored, despite the fact that both John Edwards and John Kerry had extensive "urban America" proposals on their Web sites. And with why Philip Hersh, a Chicago Tribune sportswriter, wrote in January that the disgraced skater Tonya Harding "grew up in an environment that ... reeked of white trash," and when called on it by a reader and the Tribunes public editor, replied that he had "thought long and hard before using it. The term fit Tonya Harding perfectly."
The divide helps explain why Frank Gilliam, a political scientist at UCLA who studies issues of race and local TV news, was told by residents in both a poor black neighborhood and a poor white neighborhood in Indianapolis that the press "only focused on the bad stuff, that they had no access to the media, and were not treated with respect by the media." It also helps explain the growth of ethnic newspapers. And it has something to do with why Abby Scher, who runs the New York Office of the Independent Press Association, got the following response from a magazine editor in Chicago when she told him, after graduating from college in the eighties, that she couldnt afford to take a job for $8,500 a year: "Cant your parents help you out?"
We in the press have a responsibility to engage everyone, not just those readers and viewers with whom we share cultural and economic touchstones. The good news is that the best reporters and serious news outlets find ways to bridge this divide. The bad news is that we dont do it often enough, and our reluctance to talk about class -- in the newsroom and elsewhere -- makes it hard to change the equation. There are consequences to the fact that millions of people in this country see little of themselves and their lives in the media, unless they are connected somehow to a problem. It may have something to do with why the press is so disliked and distrusted; or why daily newspaper circulation has been in decline for twenty years. Every reporter has his blind spots. But when we all share many of the same blind spots, it makes it difficult to see the forty-four million people who lack health insurance in this country, for example, as anything but the face of failed social policies -- important but abstract.
In Search of the Working Class
Anthony DePalma, who has been a national correspondent and a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and now covers environmental issues, says that for years he felt as though he had "snuck my way into the paper." DePalma grew up the son of a longshoreman in Hoboken, New Jersey. He recalls seeing his father sitting at the kitchen table at the end of a workday, in T-shirt and reading glasses, paging through the Jersey Journal. "I never saw my dad read anything else, but he would spend forty-five minutes with the Journal every day," DePalma says. "It sent a semiconscious message about a newspapers ability to reach a wide audience."
DePalma graduated from Seton Hall in 1975 (the first in his family to go to college), married, and went to work unloading trucks for UPS on the overnight shift. During the day, he freelanced. In 1986, after doing quite a bit of work for the Times over the years, he was hired as a reporter in the real estate section. "The lowest rung, the backdoor, whatever you want to call it," he says. Inside, DePalma felt the divide. "The Pulitzers, the Ivy Leagues. I felt it very strongly," he says. "You have to understand, the Times never crossed the threshold at our house, growing up."
The very idea of class makes Americans, including journalists, uncomfortable. It grates against the myth, so firmly ingrained in our national psyche, that ours is a society of self-made men, with bootstraps. This idea persists even though upward mobility, in any broad sense, is becoming a myth. It adds a moral tinge to discussions of poverty, a notion that the poor must shoulder much of the blame for their plight, and the corollary, that the wealthy should be credited for their success.
Class is also difficult to discuss because it has become so connected to the polarizing issue of race. When Alexis Patterson, a black seven-year-old from Milwaukee, and Elizabeth Smart, a fourteen-year-old white girl from Salt Lake City, vanished within a month of each other in 2002, the press turned Smart into a national crusade while few people outside of Milwaukee ever heard of Patterson. Race had something to do with why, as did the circumstances of each case; Elizabeths abduction from her bed, which was witnessed by her terrified little sister, arguably made for a better story than Alexis, who vanished on her way to school. But class played a role, too. Patterson came from a poor neighborhood, and her stepfather had done time on a drug charge. Smarts father is a real-estate broker, and her uncle a photographer with the local newspaper.
Class is problematic, too, because we dont agree on how to define it. Is it about education? Income? Where do the swelling ranks of the working poor fit in? Under the headline "What is Rich?" a Houston Chronicle article last year illustrated how "in one of the worlds most affluent countries, few seem to see themselves as rich, even if theyre in the upper-income brackets." Michael Zweig, an economist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who directs the Center for Study of Working Class Life, defines class based on power. Using data from the census bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he designated occupations as working class, middle class, or capitalist class by the relative power each job affords. A truck driver is working class, for example, but a truck driver who owns his own rig is an independent contractor and is therefore middle class. By this measure, Zweig says, 62 percent of the countrys workforce is actually working class. "Thats eighty-five million people, hardly a special interest group," he says.
Zweigs formula resonated with Paul Solman, an economics reporter on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, on PBS. In the spring of 2003, Solman was doing a series of reports on the jobless recovery, and he interviewed Zweig. With the camera rolling, Solman said to Zweig, "By your measure, I am middle class, right?" Zweig agreed, then nodded to the cameraman behind Solman, "And he is working class." Solman looked over his shoulder at his well-paid cameraman, "Is that true, Kevin?" Kevin thought for a minute and said that it was. "Why?" Solman asked. Kevin answered, "Because I cant say cut."
Says Solman: "I was struck by that because it suggested that the variable wasnt income, but power, and to a lesser extent security."
Yet in our national discourse, we are a middle-class country, period. In polls people tend to identify as middle class, regardless of what they do or how much money they make. (Zweig notes that poll respondents are rarely given the choice of "working class," but when they are, more choose that than "middle class.") From a journalistic standpoint, the working class has historically been linked to organized labor. As labors numbers, and thus its political power, declined, so did our coverage of it. With its most important public countenance fading, the working-class perspective largely disappeared, too.
DePalma recently got a taste of just how difficult it can be to recapture that perspective in any consistent way. When the Times began its "Portraits of Grief" project on those killed in the World Trade Center, DePalma volunteered. "They were people I knew," he says, "and I realized that this is a world I had been running away from all these years." DePalma wrote a portrait of someone who had gone to his high school. He wrote six portraits of fellow Seton Hall graduates. Afterward, he discussed his experience writing portraits with Jonathan Landman, then the papers Metro editor. "Jon said there are all these people out there who we never write about," DePalma recalls. "People who basically play by the rules, dont make huge demands on public services. We ignore them except when they die in a tower." Together they decided that DePalma would take on a new beat that sought to fill this gap in the coverage, a working-class beat.
From June 2002 to August 2003, only two of DePalmas stories from this mini-beat -- he was still a general assignment reporter -- made page one. The centerpiece was a series about a block in Ozone Park, Queens. DePalma wrote about Rosemere and Danny Messina, who were struggling to save ten dollars a week to celebrate their sons first Holy Communion; about Joseph Raia, retired on permanent disability, who agonized over whether to raise the rent on his long-time tenants -- a couple with two young children whom Raia is close to -- in the face of the citys property tax increase; about Antoinette Franciscos frustrating effort to care for a neglected tree, which the city eventually cut down.
In September of last year, DePalma got a fellowship at Notre Dame, and handed the beat off to a fellow reporter to tend in her spare time until he got back. When he returned in January, no stories had been done, Landman had been promoted, and interest in the working-class beat seemed lacking. "It had tremendous support from the Metro desk, but it is hard to see how that support was carried out more broadly in the paper," DePalma says. "I always took that to mean there was a discomfort with terms like working class, and attempts to define class in meaningful ways." DePalma chose to move on.
Landman, now an assistant managing editor, disputes the notion that the beat had little support beyond Metro. "I never heard anybody express or signal discomfort with the idea of reporting on class," he said via e-mail, noting that "support in Metro is what you need to succeed in Metro," anyway. As for why the beat was dropped, Landman says that DePalma asked for the environmental beat when he returned from Notre Dame.
For his part, DePalma doesnt hide his disappointment.
"The idea was to expose our readers to a world we normally ignore, the same way we would with villagers in, say, Suriname," he says. "It is fairly pitiful to compare the working class in this country to villagers in Suriname, but they are almost equally unknown."
'A Secure Lodgement'
Contrary to the comforting notion of the press standing firmly behind the little guy, there was never a Golden Age when American journalism consistently sided with the powerless against the powerful. By 1927, H.L. Mencken was already lashing the press for what he saw as its upwardly mobile ambitions. "A good reporter," he wrote, "used to make as much as a bartender or a police sergeant; he now makes as much as the average doctor or lawyer, and probably a great deal more. His view of the world he lives in has thus changed. He is no longer a free-lance in human society, thumbing his nose at its dignitaries; he has got a secure lodgment in a definite stratum, and his wife, if he has one, maybe has social ambitions."
There was once, though, a prominent strain of American journalism that was much more organically connected to the poor and the working class. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, for instance, Appeal to Reason, a socialist weekly out of Kansas, drew hundreds of thousands of readers with its scathing indictments of the inequities of unfettered capitalism by the likes of Upton Sinclair and Eugene Debs. In the 1940s, the short-lived New York paper, PM, was a more mainstream incarnation of this same spirit. Its motto: "PM is against people who push other people around." In the years before Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1976, the New York Post made something of a last stab at bottom-up journalism. By the 1960s, though, TV was on its way to becoming the dominant journalistic force, the newspaper business began hitching its star to Wall Street, and the age of corporate media was under way. The path to a journalism job led, increasingly, through journalism school, and thus began a new round of professionalization in the business.
Meanwhile, in the late 1960s the Republican Party began recasting itself as the party of the hardhats, those angry white men (mostly) -- real Americans -- who resented the decades emphasis on the struggles of blacks, the poor, and the spoiled hippies who were against the Vietnam war. Part of this strategy was to portray the press as members of a liberal elite, the New Class, that was out of touch with these real Americans. This charge, remarkably, has kept the press more or less on its heels ever since. The soul-searching on display in a column Joseph Kraft wrote in the wake of the 1968 Democratic National Convention -- "Most of us in what is called the communications field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans ..." -- echoes today in the presss paralyzing fear of being accused of liberal bias. By the time Ronald Reagan was elected and began vilifying the poor, the press -- increasingly corporate and cowed -- was in no position to resist.
In the 1980s, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened -- and journalists were increasingly among the haves. The middle class split, as blue-collar manufacturing jobs disappeared and were replaced by a tide of low-paying, insecure service sector jobs and an expansion of the professional class. Under Reagan, the country sprinted into the ample arms of a shiny new money culture, offering salvation through free markets (and later through technology). Media deregulation launched a leap-frogging series of media mergers that culminated -- for the time being -- in the ill-fated AOL purchase of Time Warner in 2001. So as journalists joined a broader professional elite, the companies they worked for swelled into corporate behemoths.
In the 1990s, the Internet economy and its overnight millionaires sharpened the wage envy of the new generation of journalists for their professional-class counterparts. David Denbys new book, "American Sucker," about his own sad money chase, lays bare this phenomenon of irrational exuberance. So many journalists either bolted for the Internet ether, or threatened to, that some newspapers began offering stock options to hang on to their talent. The divide got a little wider. "A world where money is a marker and all comparisons are directed upward makes it hard to understand people for whom a million dollars would be a fortune, or those for whom $10,000 would be the difference between affording college or not, not to mention those for whom $246 is a full weeks earnings, before tax, at the minimum wage," wrote James Fallows in an essay called "The Invisible Poor," published in the Mar. 19, 2000 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Later in that same piece, he wrote, "Compared with the software elite, the professional-class American finds it easier to imagine financial ruin .... But there is a great similarity between the view from the top and the view from the next few tiers: the increasing haziness and Oh, yes, now that you remind me nature of the view of the poor."
The evolution of journalism as a profession -- with its higher ethical standards and emphasis on expertise, good writing, and analysis -- was crucial for the press to keep pace with the world. But it came at a cost. When the barriers to entry into journalism were lower, newsrooms were open to people who brought a wider range of life experiences to their reporting and editing than we have today. To be sure, that era had its problems. It was inhabited almost exclusively by white men, for one. But an interesting thing about that ASNE survey, mentioned earlier, is how so many attitudes cut across age, race, gender, or ethnic lines. What diversity there is, it seems, is only skin deep.
Empathy and Imagination
The opening scene in Alex Kotlowitzs 1991 book, "There Are No Children Here," offers a hint as to how we might begin to bridge this divide. It starts with a group of boys from a Chicago public housing project hunting for garter snakes in the weeds beside some train tracks. Even for someone who didnt grow up in public housing, this is a familiar scene. And that, says Kotlowitz, is the point. "The obvious place to open it is with a scene of violence, because there is violence all through the book," he says. "But instead I began with this benign moment, to show that even kids whose lives are so precarious find refuge in some of the same things we all did."
Kotlowitzs subjects were poor, not working class, and in some ways the press does a better job of covering poor people and their issues. The poor have agencies and policies and activists to create pegs for stories. We have a public discourse about poverty in a way we dont about the working class. Still, that discourse is too often one-dimensional: The poor are a problem, victims and perpetrators, the face of failed social policies. Such stories need to be done, of course; news is often about problems, things that are broken. Yet for those of us who are lucky enough to have health care, plenty to eat, a home, and a job that gives us discretionary income, the news has a lot to offer besides problems. We see our lives reflected in the real estate section, the travel section, the food section, the business section. When was the last time you read a story about how to buy a good used car for less than a thousand dollars?
The press has difficulty seeing, as Kotlowitz puts it, what is familiar about the poor. "There are so few reporters who spend time in these communities, that when they are there it seems exotic and foreign," he says. "We are so appalled by what we see that we are only looking for what is unfamiliar." This makes it hard to empathize.
Fear, too, makes it difficult to see what is familiar about the poor. Most people working in journalism today grew up in a society that taught us that housing projects were only dangerous places to be avoided. As Jamie Kalven, a Chicago-based writer and public housing activist, put it in Slate in 2002, fear "blocks our capacity for perception, for learning. When mediated by fear, ignorance can coexist with knowledge, blindness with vision. As a result, decent people find it possible to support indecent policies." In an interview, Kalven amplifies the point. Fear, he says, makes us hostage to a "one-dimensional moral geography" composed of good places and bad places, and "somehow people who are decent and morally sensitive are able to read The New York Times and listen to NPR every day and still hold this notion."
This flattened coverage is evident in the presss treatment of Chicagos massive "transformation plan," which began in 1996 and involves razing all of the citys public housing high-rises and replacing them with mixed-income developments. The plan represents a fundamental shift in the way the city houses its poor, and a number of cities around the country are following Chicagos lead. There has been a fair amount of coverage over the last seven years, both local and national, and some of it has been important and thoughtful. For example, a series by the Chicago Tribune in 1998 showed how, contrary to the goals of the plan, many displaced public housing residents were ending up in neighborhoods that were just as solidly poor and racially monochrome as the ones they left.
But much of the coverage is top-down, focused on the problems and the process, and heavy with official sources. It is full of middle-class assumptions and fears, including this from a Nov. 10, 1999, USA Today piece on the new mixed-income developments: "The wealthier families bring a greater work ethic and sense of community pride to once-desolate neighborhoods, officials say."
Against this backdrop, Mary Schmichs columns in the Tribune on Cabrini-Green, one of Chicagos most famous projects, stand out. Since May 2000, Schmich, a Metro columnist, has written two dozen columns on various characters tied to the closing of Cabrini. Those characters -- from three black girls saying goodbye to their old school and hello to a new one, to a young white couple who bought into the new, mixed-income Cabrini community -- spring from the page fully formed.
As one of the schoolgirls, referring to her anxieties about going to school with white kids for the first time, said to Schmich, "We the same kind of people inside." It was impossible not to feel a connection to these people, partly because Schmich refused to romanticize their situations. But she also showed us their insecurities, their prejudices, their joy. "Too often reporters who want to write about public housing have very fixed ideas of how to write these stories," she says. "They have the characters in their heads, because they watch too much 'Law & Order'."
Schmich, who has been at the Tribune since 1985, says three things allowed her to feel as if she werent writing about "someplace else" when doing the Cabrini columns. For starters, she lives in an affluent neighborhood that abuts Cabrini, and has been "hanging out" around Cabrini for ten years. She also grew up in Georgia near people who were poor and black, and her own father had, as Schmich says, "numerous jobs and we were often broke. The differences between me and the people in Cabrini is that there were patches in my childhood when I wasnt so poor, my parents were educated, and I was white, people helped me out," she says. "When I did these columns it wasnt anthropology, but rather from a sense that these were my neighbors."
Her main criticism of how her paper covers the poor in Chicago is really a criticism of journalism broadly. "I think this paper has a very deep commitment to covering the whole range of people and issues in Chicago," Schmich says. "But it is a question of how we do it. We bite off a huge project every few years, and that has the effect of reducing the poor to a problem. Then they disappear largely until the next big project."
There are consequences to covering the poor in this one-dimensional way, consequences that the more affluent subjects of news stories can avoid. "Youre dealing with a population that has extremely limited resources for self-representation," says Jamie Kalven. "They have no mechanism for holding folks accountable." In a Newsweek article on the Chicago transformation plan from May 15, 2000, for instance, Mayor Richard M. Daley is quoted as saying, "What people want is education, jobs and job training." But in a survey that Kalvens organization did in 2000 that asked residents of the Stateway Gardens housing project what they most wanted for their neighborhood, three of the top five answers were related to better health care, but the other two were "more activities for children" and "more cultural activities," like theater and music. Says Kalven: "These people were asserting their dignity as human beings. Our entire discourse defines them as problems, and they quietly resist it, but no one is listening."
All this would seem to suggest that if we want more nuanced coverage of the poor and the working class, then we should hire more reporters and editors who come from poor and working class backgrounds. But, as many good reporters continue to prove, you dont have to be a coal miners daughter to write well about Appalachia. Kotlowitz, for example, grew up comfortably middle class on New Yorks Upper West Side. In fact, being an insider can bring some unexpected problems. Wil Cruz, a Newsday reporter who was born and raised in the LaGuardia Houses, a public housing project on New Yorks Lower East Side, knows something of this. "If you and I were to go cover a story in the south Bronx, they would see you as official and treat you with some respect," he says. "They would be more comfortable with me, but Im not sure that works to my advantage. They might see me as showing off my success."
Reporters do, however, need to be motivated to get beyond our assumptions. To do that it helps, as the St. Paul Pioneer Presss Maja Beckstrom says, to be able to imagine "What if?" An interesting thing emerged as I interviewed reporters for this piece: A large number of them were raised by single mothers, including Beckstrom, the author David Shipler, The Washington Posts Anne Hull, and The Guardians Gary Younge. All said something similar, that experiencing the fragility of a broken family -- no matter how quickly or comfortably things settled -- allowed them to imagine how close they are to those in society whose lives seem, from the outside, to be nothing but problems. Hull, a national features writer at the Post, isnt sure just how her background shaped her as a reporter, but says this: "Im much more comfortable around these people than I am being at, say, the courthouse, or places where everyone wears a suit. Maybe Im intimidated by power. I dont know."
"These people" Hull refers to include the young immigrants and children of immigrants in Atlanta whom she wrote about in a four-part series in late 2002. The original idea, not surprisingly, was a piece on the growth of Latino gangs in Atlanta -- a problem. But Hull came back with a richer story about kids who were caught between their desire to escape the world of their parents and an American society that often failed them, either in the classroom or on the streets. "A lot of writing about immigrants today is really precious, and reduces them to a single dimension: hard-working," Hull says. "But theyre real people, with flaws. They make bad decisions."
It takes time for outsiders to write these stories; Hull spent sixteen months on her Atlanta series. That may be an extreme, but to do these stories right requires that such coverage be a newsroom priority.
Spurred by its 1998 project on poverty, the Pioneer Press created a poverty beat and gave it to Maja Beckstrom. In 2002 she went on maternity leave and the beat died, a victim, she says, of the papers "effort to rethink priorities of coverage given a tight budget." Once back at work, she was given the choice of a twenty-something lifestyle beat or one on parenting and families. Beckstrom chose the latter.
Even if reporters are attuned to the complexities of life for the poor and the working class, they face a number of obstacles to getting those stories in the paper or on the air. The profit expectations of newspapers and television news operations have had a dramatic and well-known effect on the quality of journalism: shorter stories, fewer reporters, and a focus on those readers who appeal to advertisers. "There arent too many publishers who come striding into the newsroom demanding more coverage of the ghetto," says Walker Lundy, a former editor of the Pioneer Press and The Philadelphia Inquirer, who is now retired. "You cant sell many ads when your readers dont have credit cards, and thus some readers are worth more than others."
The priorities of corporate media aside, the very ways we define and deliver news today work against the kind of coverage Hull, Schmich, and the others are after. Our devotion to the ideal of objectivity produces too many stories that are so concerned with "balance" that they end up saying very little. The pace of the news cycle, as well as the shrinking newshole, foster a way of thinking about the news that doesnt lend itself to nuance and complexity. We are trained to find the quick hit, not to connect the various dots and reach conclusions. For example, a new study of how New York Citys daily newspapers covered the citys post-9/11 budget crisis, commissioned by the nonprofit Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, found that the coverage failed "to clarify the stakes of policy decisions on various socioeconomic classes." The coverage, the study concluded, suggested that "everyones interests are identical." Not surprisingly, the sources used to delineate and explain those interests were mostly politicians and government officials.
For David Shipler, the former New York Times correspondent whose latest book is about the working poor, it took a newsroom strike to free him of the confines of daily journalism. "I was in Moscow with the Times when we went on strike in 1978," he says. "For three months I didnt have to write for the paper, and I stopped thinking in terms of the seven-hundred-word story. I began to notice things that I hadnt stopped to consider, to see patterns and connections. Thats why I was able to write a book. I got a different lens. When your antennae are highly tuned for the good story, these things go by you. Unless a paper is willing to give reporters the freedom to not write every day, then it will be hard for them to find a new lens."
Dale Maharidge, who won a Pulitzer for his 1989 book And Their Children After Them, about rural poverty, never found it difficult to see the world from the bottom up. Since taking his first journalism job at The Gazette of Medina in Cleveland, his hometown, in 1977, Maharidge has been referred to by editors, somewhat derisively, he says, as the "bum writer." He was the son of a steelworker who had a side business at home, grinding cutting tools for industrial use. "I literally grew up breathing steel dust," says Maharidge. His new book, Homeland, due out July 4, is about an undercurrent of working-class -- really working-poor -- anger that Maharidge says predates 9/11. The book highlights the kinds of stories the press misses because of this "lens" problem Shipler talks about.
Among the people Maharidge introduces us to are a mother and son who live together in Bridgeview, a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, where, following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, a white mob marched on a local mosque, threatening to burn it down. In 2002, on the first anniversary of the attacks, there was another march in Bridgeview, and Maharidge was there for it. He saw the mother and son, carrying an American flag, being chased off by the police, and he followed them and got their names and address. A few days later he went to their house. Two hours later he had a deeper understanding of the anger on display in that march, and it wasnt as much about anti-Muslim bigotry as press accounts surmised. The son, who was in his mid-thirties, couldnt work because of a heart condition. He showed Maharidge a grocery bag full of medical bills -- $200,000 worth, the son said -- that he had no way to pay. The mother, who needed knee-replacement surgery that she couldnt afford, lifted her shirt to show him a pain patch on her back. She worked for seven dollars an hour at J.C. Penney, but had no insurance. "Would they have still been racists if they had jobs and insurance?" Maharidge says. "Sure. But would they have been out there marching? Maybe not."
There are things that we could do to address this class divide and get a news report that is, as the Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans put it, "multiperspectival." The most obvious is to broaden our diversity recruitment programs to include a specific focus on class. Efforts to bring racial and ethnic diversity to the newsroom have struggled, and this one wouldnt be any easier. But Tim Rutten, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, cautions against fatalism on the question of building socioeconomic diversity. "I worked with the first black in the L.A. Times newsroom, the first Latino, the first woman editor, and the first woman on the masthead," he says. "All those things are commonplace now in journalism, but there was a time when each seemed an impossible social barrier."
Editors might do more to encourage reporters like Newsdays Wil Cruz as he struggles to figure out how to use his background -- he dropped out of high school before eventually getting a degree from New Yorks City College -- to inform his reporting on his new beat, education. "I dont know if it gives me power," he says of his atypical path to journalism. "If it does, I havent been able to channel that advantage into my stories. But I need to, because I see it as a responsibility to do it right."
Newspapers need to play to their strengths, and stop trying to compete with the electronic media on every breaking story. The ability of even the sharpest journalism to effect real change is incremental at best, but the stories that have a shot -- the scoops that matter -- are those that go deep and tell us important things about the world, that challenge the way we think about something. David Barstow and Lowell Bergmans Pulitzer-winning articles last year in The New York Times said something important about worker safety in this country, but they took seventeen months to complete and involved a dozen reporters, researchers, producers, and editors. As important as those stories were, though, they are indicative of how the press approaches the poor and the working class. As Mary Schmich says, we embrace the big project, then ignore them until time for the next big project. Day to day, their perspectives and concerns are missing from the media.
A bit of outrage would help, too. Russell Baker says that outrage has been "bred" out of us, that we come from a class for whom the system has largely worked, and hes right. The working class has all but disappeared from our pages and no one seems to notice. We report on the poor, but do little to empower the poor. Thats what makes the recent crusade by the New York Daily News to raise the states minimum wage so noteworthy. Not only did the paper have a reporter dogging the issue from the field, but its editorial page hammered away at it for months.
Anthony DePalma says that the outrage is still with us, but that it takes a crisis -- a pair of kids starving to death in Newark, an innocent man being shot forty-one times by the police in the Bronx -- to draw it to the surface. Well, how about this for a crisis: We are the richest country in the history of the world, and we tolerate thirty-five million of our fellow Americans living in poverty; we tolerate forty-four million without health insurance. Meanwhile, Gannett pays Larry Miller, its outgoing CFO, $600,000 a year for an open-ended "consulting" contract, in addition to a car and golf club membership.
Brent Cunningham is the Managing Editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.
In his Mar. 6 press conference, in which he laid out his reasons for the coming war, President Bush mentioned al Qaeda or the attacks of Sept. 11 fourteen times in fifty-two minutes. No one challenged him on it, despite the fact that the CIA had questioned the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, and that there has never been solid evidence marshaled to support the idea that Iraq was involved in the attacks of 9/11.
When Bush proposed his $726 billion tax cut in January, his sales pitch on the plan's centerpiece -- undoing the "double-taxation" on dividend earnings -- was that "It's unfair to tax money twice." Over the next two months, the tax plan was picked over in hundreds of articles and broadcasts, yet a Nexis database search turned up few news stories (notably, one by Donald Barlett and James Steele in Time on Jan. 27, and another by Daniel Altman in the business section of The New York Times on Jan. 21) that explained in detail what was misleading about the president's pitch: in fact, there is plenty of income that is doubly, triply, or even quadruply taxed; and these other taxes affect many more people than the sliver who would benefit from the dividend tax cut.
Before the fighting started in Iraq, in the dozens of articles and broadcasts that addressed the potential aftermath of a war, much was written and said about the maneuverings of the Iraqi exile community, the shape of a postwar government, and the cost and duration and troop numbers. Important subjects all. But few of those stories, dating from late last summer, delved deeply into the numerous and plausible complications of the aftermath.
That all changed on Feb. 26, when President Bush spoke grandly of making Iraq a model for retooling the entire Middle East. After Bush's speech, "aftermath" articles began to flow like the waters of the Tigris -- including cover stories in Time and The New York Times Magazine -- culminating in The Wall Street Journal's page-one story on Mar. 17, just days before the first cruise missiles rained down on Baghdad. The article revealed how the administration planned to hand the multibillion-dollar job of rebuilding Iraq to U.S. corporations. It was as if the subject of the war's aftermath was more or less off the table until the president put it there himself.
There is no single explanation for these holes in the coverage, but I would argue that our devotion to what we call "objectivity" played a role. It's true that the Bush administration is like a clenched fist with information, one that won't hesitate to hit back when pressed. And that reporting on the possible aftermath of a war before the war occurs, in particular, was a difficult and speculative story.
Yet these three examples -- which happen to involve the current White House, although every White House spins stories -- provide a window into a particular failure of the press: allowing the principle of objectivity to make us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it. We all learned about objectivity in school or at our first job. Along with its twin sentries "fairness" and "balance," it defined journalistic standards.
Or did it? Ask ten journalists what objectivity means and you'll get ten different answers. Some, like the Washington Post's editor, Leonard Downie, define it so strictly that they refuse to vote lest they be forced to take sides. My favorite definition was from Michael Bugeja, who teaches journalism at Iowa State: "Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were." In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists acknowledged this dilemma and dropped "objectivity" from its ethics code. It also changed "the truth" to simply "truth."
Tripping Toward the Truth
As E.J. Dionne wrote in his 1996 book, "They Only Look Dead," the press operates under a number of conflicting diktats: be neutral yet investigative; be disengaged but have an impact; be fair-minded but have an edge. Therein lies the nut of our tortured relationship with objectivity. Few would argue that complete objectivity is possible, yet we bristle when someone suggests we aren't being objective -- or fair, or balanced -- as if everyone agrees on what these words all mean.
Over the last dozen years a cottage industry of bias police has sprung up to exploit this fissure in the journalistic psyche, with talk radio leading the way followed by Shout TV and books like Ann Coulter's "Slander" and Bernard Goldberg's "Bias." Now the left has begun firing back with Eric Alterman's book "What Liberal Media?" and a group of wealthy Democrats' plans for a liberal radio network. James Carey, a journalism scholar at Columbia, points out that we are entering a new age of partisanship.
One result is a hypersensitivity among the press to charges of bias, and it shows up everywhere: In Oct. 2001, with the war in Afghanistan under way, then CNN chairman Walter Isaacson sent a memo to his foreign correspondents telling them to "balance" reports of Afghan "casualties or hardship" with reminders to viewers that this was, after all, in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. More recently, a CJR intern, calling newspaper letters-page editors to learn whether reader letters were running for or against the looming war in Iraq, was told by the letters editor at The Tennessean that letters were running 70 percent against the war, but that the editors were trying to run as many prowar letters as possible lest they be accused of bias.
Objectivity has persisted for some valid reasons, the most important being that nothing better has replaced it. And plenty of good journalists believe in it, at least as a necessary goal. Objectivity, or the pursuit of it, separates us from the unbridled partisanship found in much of the European press. It helps us make decisions quickly - we are disinterested observers after all -- and it protects us from the consequences of what we write. We'd like to think it buoys our embattled credibility, though the deafening silence of many victims of Jayson Blair's fabrications would argue otherwise. And as we descend into this new age of partisanship, our readers need, more than ever, reliable reporting that tells them what is true when that is knowable, and pushes as close to truth as possible when it is not.
But our pursuit of objectivity can trip us up on the way to "truth." Objectivity excuses lazy reporting. If you're on deadline and all you have is "both sides of the story," that's often good enough. It's not that such stories laying out the parameters of a debate have no value for readers, but too often, in our obsession with, as The Washington Post's Bob Woodward puts it, "the latest," we fail to push the story, incrementally, toward a deeper understanding of what is true and what is false. Steven R. Weisman, the chief diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times and a believer in the goal of objectivity ("even though we fall short of the ideal every day"), concedes that he felt obliged to dig more when he was an editorial writer, and did not have to be objective. "If you have to decide who is right, then you must do more reporting," he says. "I pressed the reporting further because I didn't have the luxury of saying X says this and Y says this and you, dear reader, can decide who is right."
It exacerbates our tendency to rely on official sources, which is the easiest, quickest way to get both the "he said" and the "she said," and, thus, "balance." According to numbers from the media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the 414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from last September to February, all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. So we end up with too much of the "official" truth.
More important, objectivity makes us wary of seeming to argue with the president -- or the governor, or the CEO -- and risk losing our access. Jonathan Weisman, an economics reporter for The Washington Post, says this about the fear of losing access: "If you are perceived as having a political bias, or a slant, you're screwed."
Finally, objectivity makes reporters hesitant to inject issues into the news that aren't already out there. "News is driven by the zeitgeist," says Jonathan Weisman, "and if an issue isn't part of the current zeitgeist then it will be a tough sell to editors." But who drives the zeitgeist, in Washington at least? The administration. In short, the press's awkward embrace of an impossible ideal limits its ability to help set the agenda.
This is not a call to scrap objectivity, but rather a search for a better way of thinking about it, a way that is less restrictive and more grounded in reality. As Eric Black, a reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, says, "We need a way to both do our job and defend it."
An Ideal's Troubled Past
American journalism's honeymoon with objectivity has been brief. The press began to embrace objectivity in the middle of the nineteenth century, as society turned away from religion and toward science and empiricism to explain the world. But in his 1998 book, "Just the Facts," a history of the origins of objectivity in U.S. journalism, David Mindich argues that by the turn of the twentieth century, the flaws of objective journalism were beginning to show. Mindich shows how "objective" coverage of lynching in the 1890s by the New York Times and other papers created a false balance on the issue and failed "to recognize a truth, that African-Americans were being terrorized across the nation."
After World War I, the rise of public relations and the legacy of wartime propaganda -- in which journalists such as Walter Lippman had played key roles -- began to undermine reporters' faith in facts. The war, the Depression, and Roosevelt's New Deal raised complex issues that defied journalism's attempt to distill them into simple truths. As a result, the use of bylines increased (an early nod to the fact that news is touched by human frailty), the political columnist crawled from the primordial soup, and the idea of "interpretive reporting" emerged. Still, as Michael Schudson argued in his 1978 book, "Discovering the News," journalism clung to objectivity as the faithful cling to religion, for guidance in an uncertain world. He wrote: "From the beginning, then, criticism of the 'myth' of objectivity has accompanied its enunciation ... Journalists came to believe in objectivity, to the extent that they did, because they wanted to, needed to, were forced by ordinary human aspiration to seek escape from their own deep convictions of doubt and drift."
By the 1960s, objectivity was again under fire, this time to more fundamental and lasting effect. Straight, "objective" coverage of McCarthyism a decade earlier had failed the public, leading Alan Barth, an editorial writer at The Washington Post, to tell a 1952 gathering of the Association for Education in Journalism: "There can be little doubt that the way [Senator Joseph McCarthy's charges] have been reported in most papers serves Senator McCarthy's partisan political purposes much more than it serves the purposes of the press, the interest of truth." Government lies about the U2 spy flights, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Vietnam War all cast doubt on the ability of "objective" journalism to get at anything close to the truth. The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer was in part a reaction to what many saw as the failings of mainstream reporting. In Vietnam, many of the beat reporters who arrived believing in objectivity eventually realized, if they stayed long enough, that such an approach wasn't sufficient. Says John Laurence, a former CBS News correspondent, about his years covering Vietnam: "Because the war went on for so long and so much evidence accumulated to suggest it was a losing cause, and that in the process we were destroying the Vietnamese and ourselves, I felt I had a moral obligation to report my views as much as the facts."
As a result of all these things, American journalism changed. "Vietnam and Watergate destroyed what I think was a genuine sense that our officials knew more than we did and acted in good faith," says Anthony Lewis, the former New York Times reporter and columnist. We became more sophisticated in our understanding of the limits of objectivity. And indeed, the parameters of modern journalistic objectivity allow reporters quite a bit of leeway to analyze, explain, and put news in context, thereby helping guide readers and viewers through the flood of information.
Still, nothing replaced objectivity as journalism's dominant professional norm. Some 75 percent of journalists and news executives in a 1999 Pew Research Center survey said it was possible to obtain a true, accurate, and widely agreed-upon account of an event. More than two-thirds thought it feasible to develop "a systematic method to cover events in a disinterested and fair way." The survey also offered another glimpse of the objectivity fissure: more than two-thirds of the print press in the Pew survey also said that "providing an interpretation of the news is a core principle," while less than half of those in television news agreed with that.
The More Things Change
If objectivity's philosophical hold on journalism has eased a bit since the 1960s, a number of other developments have bound us more tightly to the objective ideal and simultaneously exacerbated its shortcomings. Not only are journalists operating under conflicting orders, as E.J. Dionne argued, but their corporate owners don't exactly trumpet the need to rankle the status quo. It is perhaps important to note that one of the original forces behind the shift to objectivity in the nineteenth century was economic. To appeal to as broad an audience as possible, first the penny press and later the new wire services gradually stripped news of "partisan" context. Today's owners have squeezed the newshole, leaving less space for context and analysis.
If space is a problem, time is an even greater one. The nonstop news cycle leaves reporters less time to dig, and encourages reliance on official sources who can provide the information quickly and succinctly. "We are slaves to the incremental daily development," says one White House correspondent, "but you are perceived as having a bias if you don't cover it." This lack of time makes a simpleminded and lazy version of objectivity all the more tempting. In The American Prospect of Nov. 6, 2000, Chris Mooney wrote about how "e-spin," a relentless diet of canned attacks and counterattacks e-mailed from the Bush and Gore campaigns to reporters, was winding up, virtually unedited, in news stories. "Lazy reporters may be seduced by the ease of readily provided research," Mooney wrote. "That's not a new problem, except that the prevalence of electronic communication has made it easier to be lazy."
Meanwhile, the Internet and cable news's Shout TV, which drive the nonstop news cycle, have also elevated the appeal of "attitude" in the news, making the balanced, measured report seem anachronistic. In the January/February issue of CJR, young journalists asked to create their dream newspaper wanted more point-of-view writing in news columns. They got a heavy dose of it during the second gulf war, with news "anchors" like Fox's Neil Cavuto saying of those who opposed the war, "You were sickening then; you are sickening now."
Perhaps most ominous of all, public relations, whose birth early in the twentieth century rattled the world of objective journalism, has matured into a spin monster so ubiquitous that nearly every word a reporter hears from an official source has been shaped and polished to proper effect. Consider the memo from the Republican strategist Frank Luntz, as described in a Mar. 2 New York Times story, that urged the party -- and President Bush -- to soften their language on the environment to appeal to suburban voters. "Climate change" instead of "global warming," "conservationist" rather than "environmentalist." To the extent that the threat of being accused of bias inhibits reporters from cutting through this kind of manipulation, challenging it, and telling readers about it, then journalism's dominant professional norm needs a new set of instructions.
Joan Didion got at this problem while taking Bob Woodward to task in a 1996 piece in The New York Review of Books for writing books that she argued were too credulous, that failed to counter the possibility that his sources were spinning him. She wrote:
The genuflection toward "fairness" is a familiar newsroom piety, in practice the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking but in theory a benign ideal. In Washington, however, a community in which the management of news has become the single overriding preoccupation of the core industry, what "fairness" has often come to mean is a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.Asked about such criticism, Woodward says that for his books he has the time and the space and the sources to actually uncover what really happened, not some manufactured version of it. "The best testimony to that," he says, "is that the critics never suggest how any of it is manufactured, that any of it is wrong." Then, objectivity rears its head. "What they seem to be saying," Woodward says of his critics, "is that I refuse to use the information I have to make a political argument, and they are right, I won't." Yet some of Woodward's critics do suggest how his material is manufactured. Christopher Hitchens, reviewing Woodward's latest book, "Bush at War," in the June issue of The Atlantic Monthly, argues that, while reporting on a significant foreign-policy debate, Woodward fully presents the point of view of his cooperative sources, but fails to report deeply on the other sides of the argument. Thus he presents an incomplete picture. "Pseudo-objectivity in the nation's capital," Hitchens writes, "is now overripe for regime change."
To Fill the Void
Jason Riley is a young reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal. Along with a fellow reporter, R.G. Dunlop, he won a Polk award this year for a series on dysfunction in the county courts, in which hundreds of felony cases dating back to 1983 were lost and never resolved. Riley and Dunlop's series was a classic example of enterprise reporting: poking around the courthouse, Riley came across one felony case that had been open for several years. That led to more cases, then to a drawer full of open cases. No one was complaining, at least publicly, about this problem. In a first draft, Riley wrote that the system was flawed because it let cases fall off the docket and just disappear for years. "I didn't think it needed attribution because it was the conclusion I had drawn after six months of investigation," he writes in an e-mail. But his editor sent it back with a note: "Says who?"
In a follow-up profile of the county's lead prosecutor, a man Riley has covered for three years, many sources would not criticize the prosecutor on the record. He "knew what people thought of him, knew what his strengths and weaknesses were," Riley says. "Since no one was openly discussing issues surrounding him, I raised many in my profile without attribution." Again his editors hesitated. There were discussions about the need to remain objective. "Some of my conclusions and questions were left out because no one else brought them up on the record," he says.
Riley discovered a problem on his own, reported the hell out of it, developed an understanding of the situation, and reached some conclusions based on that. No official sources were speaking out about it, so he felt obliged to fill that void. Is that bias? Good reporters do it, or attempt to do it, all the time. The strictures of objectivity can make it difficult. "I think most journalists will admit to feeding sources the information we want to hear, for quotes or attribution, just so we can make the crucial point we are not allowed to make ourselves," Riley says. "But why not? As society's watchdogs, I think we should be asking questions, we should be bringing up problems, possible solutions ... writing what we know to be true."
Last fall, when America and the world were debating whether to go to war in Iraq, no one in the Washington establishment wanted to talk much about the aftermath of such a war. For the Bush administration, attempting to rally support for a preemptive war, messy discussions about all that could go wrong in the aftermath were unhelpful. Anything is better than Saddam, the argument went. The Democrats, already wary of being labeled unpatriotic, spoke their piece in October when they voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, essentially putting the country on a war footing. Without the force of a "she said" on the aftermath story, it was largely driven by the administration, which is to say stories were typically framed by what the administration said it planned to do. Work with other nations to build democracy. Strike a blow to terrorists. Stay as long as we need to and not a minute longer. Pay for it all with Iraqi oil revenue. There were some notable exceptions -- a piece by Anthony Shadid in the Oct. 20 Boston Globe, for instance, and another on Sept. 22 by James Dao in the New York Times, pushed beyond the administration's broad assumptions about what would happen when Saddam was gone -- but most of the coverage included only boilerplate reminders that Iraq is a fractious country and bloody reprisals are likely, that tension between the Kurds and Turks might be a problem, and that Iran has designs on the Shiite region of southern Iraq.
David House, the reader advocate for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote a piece on Mar. 23 that got at the press's limitations in setting the agenda. "Curiously, for all the technology the news media have, for all the gifted minds that make it all work ... it's a simple thing to stop the media cold. Say nothing, hide documents."
In November, James Fallows wrote a cover story for The Atlantic Monthly entitled "The Fifty-First State? The Inevitable Aftermath of Victory in Iraq." In it, with the help of regional experts, historians, and retired military officers, he gamed out just how difficult the aftermath could be. Among the scenarios he explored: the financial and logistical complications caused by the destruction of Baghdad's infrastructure; the possibility that Saddam Hussein would escape and join Osama bin Laden on the Most Wanted list; how the dearth of Arabic speakers in the U.S. government would hinder peacekeeping and other aftermath operations; how the need for the U.S., as the occupying power, to secure Iraq's borders would bring it face to face with Iran, another spoke in the "axis of evil"; the complications of working with the United Nations after it refused to support the war; what to do about the Iraqi debt from, among other things, UN-imposed reparations after the first gulf war, which some estimates put as high as $400 billion.
Much of this speculation has since come to pass and is bedeviling the U.S.'s attempt to stabilize -- let alone democratize -- Iraq. So are some other post-war realities that were either too speculative or too hypothetical to be given much air in the prewar debate. Looting, for instance, and general lawlessness. The fruitless (thus far) search for weapons of mass destruction. The inability to quickly restore power and clean water. A decimated health-care system. The difficulty of establishing an interim Iraqi government, and the confusion over who exactly should run things in the meantime. The understandably shallow reservoir of patience among the long-suffering Iraqis. The hidden clause in Halliburton's contract to repair Iraq's oil wells that also, by the way, granted it control of production and distribution, despite the administration's assurances that the Iraqis would run their own oil industry.
In the rush to war, how many Americans even heard about some of these possibilities? Of the 574 stories about Iraq that aired on NBC, ABC, and CBS evening news broadcasts between Sept. 12 (when Bush addressed the UN) and Mar. 7 (a week and a half before the war began), only twelve dealt primarily with the potential aftermath, according to Andrew Tyndall's numbers.
The Republicans were saying only what was convenient, thus the "he said." The Democratic leadership was saying little, so there was no "she said." "Journalists are never going to fill the vacuum left by a weak political opposition," says The New York Times's Steven R. Weisman. But why not? If something important is being ignored, doesn't the press have an obligation to force our elected officials to address it? We have the ability, even on considerably less important matters than war and nation-building. Think of the dozens of articles The New York Times published between Jul. 10, 2002 and Mar. 31 about the Augusta National Country Club's exclusion of women members, including the one from Nov. 25 that carried the headline "CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta." Why couldn't there have been headlines last fall that read:" Bush Still Mum on Aftermath," or "Beyond Saddam: What Could Go Right, and What Could Go Wrong?" And while you're at it, consider the criticism the Times's mini-crusade on Augusta engendered in the media world, as though an editor's passion for an issue never drives coverage.
This is not inconsequential nitpicking. The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, who has written in support of going to war with Iraq, wrote of the aftermath in the Mar. 31 issue: "An American presence in Baghdad will carry with it risks and responsibilities that will shape the future of the United States in the world." The press not only could have prepared the nation and its leadership for the aftermath we are now witnessing, but should have.
The Real Bias
In the early 1990s, I was a statehouse reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia. Every time a bill was introduced in the House to restrict access to abortion, the speaker, who was solidly pro-choice, sent the bill to the health committee, which was chaired by a woman who was also pro-choice. Of course, the bills never emerged from that committee. I was green and, yes, pro-choice, so it took a couple of years of witnessing this before it sunk in that -- as the antiabortion activists had been telling me from day one -- the committee was stacked with pro-choice votes and that this was how "liberal" leadership killed the abortion bills every year while appearing to let the legislative process run its course. Once I understood, I eagerly wrote that story, not only because I knew it would get me on page one, but also because such political maneuverings offended my reporter's sense of fairness. The bias, ultimately, was toward the story.
Reporters are biased, but not in the oversimplified, left-right way that Ann Coulter and the rest of the bias cops would have everyone believe. As Nicholas Confessore argued in The American Prospect, most of the loudest bias-spotters were not reared in a newsroom. They come from politics, where everything is driven by ideology. Voting Democratic and not going to church -- two bits of demography often trotted out to show how liberal the press is -- certainly have some bearing on one's interpretation of events. But to leap to the conclusion that reporters use their precious column inches to push a left-wing agenda is specious reasoning at its worst. We all have our biases, and they can be particularly pernicious when they are unconscious. Arguably the most damaging bias is rarely discussed -- the bias born of class. A number of people interviewed for this story said that the lack of socioeconomic diversity in the newsroom is one of American journalism's biggest blind spots. Most newsroom diversity efforts, though, focus on ethnic, racial, and gender minorities, which can often mean people with different skin color but largely the same middle-class background and aspirations. At a Mar. 13 panel on media bias at Columbia's journalism school, John Leo, a columnist for U.S. News & World Report, said, "It used to be that anybody could be a reporter by walking in the door. It's a little harder to do that now, and you don't get the working-class Irish poor like Hamill or Breslin or me. What you get is people from Ivy League colleges with upper-class credentials, what you get is people who more and more tend to be and act alike." That, he says, makes it hard for a newsroom to spot its own biases.
Still, most reporters' real biases are not what political ideologues tend to think. "Politically I'm a reporter," says Eric Nalder, an investigative reporter at the San Jose Mercury News. Reporters are biased toward conflict because it is more interesting than stories without conflict; we are biased toward sticking with the pack because it is safe; we are biased toward event-driven coverage because it is easier; we are biased toward existing narratives because they are safe and easy. Consider the story -- written by reporters around the country -- of how Kenneth L. Lay, the former CEO of Enron, encouraged employees to buy company stock as he was secretly dumping his. It was a conveniently damning narrative, and easy to believe. Only it turned out, some two years later, to be untrue, leading The New York Times's Kurt Eichenwald to write a story correcting the record on Feb. 9.
Mostly, though, we are biased in favor of getting the story, regardless of whose ox is being gored. Listen to Daniel Bice, an investigative columnist at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, summarize his reporting philosophy: "Try not to be boring, be a reliable source of information, cut through the political, corporate, and bureaucratic bullshit, avoid partisanship, and hold politicians' feet to the fire." It would be tough to find a reporter who disagrees with any of that.
In his 1979 book "Deciding What's News," the Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans defined what he called the journalist's "paraideology," which, he says, unconsciously forms and strengthens much of what we think of as news judgment. This consists largely of a number of "enduring values" -- such as "altruistic democracy" and "responsible capitalism" -- that are reformist, not partisan. "In reality," Gans writes, "the news is not so much conservative or liberal as it is reformist; indeed, the enduring values are very much like the values of the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century." My abortion story, then, came from my sense that what was happening violated my understanding of "altruistic democracy." John Laurence distills Gans's paraideology into simpler terms: "We are for honesty, fairness, courage, humility. We are against corruption, exploitation, cruelty, criminal behavior, violence, discrimination, torture, abuse of power, and many other things." Clifford Levy, a reporter for the New York Times whose series on abuse in New York's homes for the mentally ill won a Pulitzer this year, says, "Of all the praise I got for the series, the most meaningful was from other reporters at the paper who said it made them proud to work there because it was a classic case of looking out for those who can't look out for themselves."
This "paraideology," James Carey explains, can lead to charges of liberal bias. "There is a bit of the reformer in anyone who enters journalism," he says. "And reformers are always going to make conservatives uncomfortable to an extent because conservatives, by and large, want to preserve the status quo."
Gans, though, notes a key flaw in the journalist's paraideology. "Journalists cannot exercise news judgment," he writes, "without a composite of nation, society, and national and social institutions in their collective heads, and this picture is an aggregate of reality judgments ... In doing so, they cannot leave room for the reality judgments that, for example, poor people have about America; nor do they ask, or even think of asking, the kinds of questions about the country that radicals, ultraconservatives, the religiously orthodox, or social scientists ask as a result of their reality judgments."
This understanding of "the other" has always been -- and will always be -- a central challenge of journalism. No individual embodies all the perspectives of a society. But we are not served in this effort by a paralyzing fear of being accused of bias. In their recent book "The Press Effect," Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman make a strong case that this fear was a major factor in the coverage of the Florida recount of the 2000 presidential election, and its influence on journalists was borne out in my reporting for this piece. "Our paper is under constant criticism by people alleging various forms of bias," says the Star-Tribune's Eric Black. "And there is a daily effort to perform in ways that will make it harder to criticize. Some are reasonable, but there is a line you can cross after which you are avoiding your duties to truth-telling." In a Mar. 10 piece critical of the press's performance at Bush's prewar press conference, USA Today's Peter Johnson quoted Sam Donaldson as saying that it is difficult for the media -- especially during war -- "to press very hard when they know that a large segment of the population doesn't want to see a president whom they have anointed having to squirm." If we're about to go to war -- especially one that is controversial -- shouldn't the president squirm?
It is important, always, for reporters to understand their biases, to understand what the accepted narratives are, and to work against them as much as possible. This might be less of a problem if our newsrooms were more diverse -- intellectually and socioeconomically as well as in gender, race, and ethnicity -- but it would still be a struggle. There is too much easy opinion passing for journalism these days, and this is in no way an attempt to justify that. Quite the opposite. We need deep reporting and real understanding, but we also need reporters to acknowledge all that they don't know, and not try to mask that shortcoming behind a gloss of attitude, or drown it in a roar of oversimplified assertions.
Toward a Better Definition of Objectivity
In the last two years, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been mentioned in more than 3,000 articles on the Nexis database, and at least 388 (11 percent) included in the same breath the fact that he was a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The same search criteria found that Yasser Arafat turned up in almost 96,000 articles, but only 177 (less than .2 percent) mentioned that he won the Nobel prize. When we move beyond stenography, reporters make a million choices, each one subjective. When, for example, is it relevant to point out, in a story about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, that the U.S. may have helped Saddam Hussein build those weapons in the 1980s? Every time? Never?
The rules of objectivity don't help us answer such questions. But there are some steps we can take to clarify what we do and help us move forward with confidence. A couple of modest proposals:
Journalists (and journalism) must acknowledge, humbly and publicly, that what we do is far more subjective and far less detached than the aura of objectivity implies -- and the public wants to believe. If we stop claiming to be mere objective observers, it will not end the charges of bias but will allow us to defend what we do from a more realistic, less hypocritical position.
Secondly, we need to free (and encourage) reporters to develop expertise and to use it to sort through competing claims, identify and explain the underlying assumptions of those claims, and make judgments about what readers and viewers need to know to understand what is happening. In short, we need them to be more willing to "adjudicate factual disputes," as Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman argue in The Press Effect. Bill Marimow, the editor of the Baltimore Sun, talks of reporters "mastering" their beats. "We want our reporters to be analysts," he told a class at Columbia in March. "Becoming an expert, and mastering the whole range of truth about issues will give you the ability to make independent judgments."
Timothy Noah, writing in The Washington Monthly for a 1999 symposium on objectivity, put it this way: "A good reporter who is well-steeped in his subject matter and who isn't out to prove his cleverness, but rather is sweating out a detailed understanding of a topic worth exploring, will probably develop intelligent opinions that will inform and perhaps be expressed in his journalism." This happens every day in ways large and small, but it still happens too rarely. In a March 18 piece headlined "Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq," the Washington Post's Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank laid out all of Bush's "allegations" about Saddam Hussein "that have been challenged -- and in some cases disproved -- by the United Nations, European governments, and even U.S. intelligence." It was noteworthy for its bluntness, and for its lack of an "analysis" tag. In commenting on that story, Steven Weisman of the New York Times illustrates how conflicted journalism is over whether such a piece belongs in the news columns: "It's a very good piece, but it is very tendentious," he says. "It's interesting that the editors didn't put it on page one, because it would look like they are calling Bush a liar. Maybe we should do more pieces like it, but you must be careful not to be argumentative."
Some reporters work hard to get these same "argumentative" ideas into their stories in more subtle ways. Think of Jason Riley's comment about "feeding information" to sources. Steven Weisman calls it making it part of the "tissue" of the story. For example, in a Mar. 17 report on the diplomatic failures of the Bush administration, Weisman worked in the idea that the CIA was questioning the Iraq-al Qaeda connection by attributing it to European officials as one explanation for why the U.S. casus belli never took hold in the UN.
The test, though, should not be whether it is tendentious, but whether it is true.
There are those who will argue that if you start fooling around with the standard of objectivity you open the door to partisanship. But mainstream reporters by and large are not ideological warriors. They are imperfect people performing a difficult job that is crucial to society. Letting them write what they know and encouraging them to dig toward some deeper understanding of things is not biased, it is essential. Reporters should feel free, as Daniel Bice says, to "call it as we see it, but not be committed to one side or the other." Their professional values make them, Herbert Gans argues, akin to reformers, and they should embrace that aspect of what they do, not hide it for fear of being slapped with a bias charge. And when actual bias seeps in -- as it surely will -- the self-policing in the newsroom must be vigorous. Witness the memo John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, wrote last month to his staff after a front-page piece on a new Texas abortion law veered left of center: "I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage."
Journalists have more tools today than ever to help them "adjudicate factual disputes." In 1993, before the computer-age version of "precision journalism" had taken root in the newsroom, Steve Doig helped The Miami Herald win a Pulitzer with his computer-assisted stories that traced damage done by Hurricane Andrew to shoddy home construction and failed governmental oversight of builders. "Precision journalism is arguably activist, but it helps us approach the unobtainable goal of objectivity more than traditional reporting strategies," says Doig, who now teaches computer-assisted reporting at Arizona State University. "It allows you to measure a problem, gives you facts that are less controvertible. Without the computer power, our Hurricane Andrew stories would have essentially been finger-pointing stories, balanced with builders saying there is no way any structure could have withstood such winds."
On Apr. 1, Ron Martz, a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution embedded with the Army in Iraq, delivered a "war diary" entry on National Public Radio in which he defended his battlefield decision to drop his reporter's detachment and take a soldier's place holding an intravenous drip bag and comforting a wounded Iraqi civilian. The "ethicists," Martz said on NPR, tell us this is murky territory. That Martz, an accomplished reporter, should worry at all that his reputation could suffer from something like this says much about journalism's relationship with objectivity. Martz concluded that he is a human being first and a reporter second, and was comfortable with that. Despite all our important and necessary attempts to minimize our humanity, it can't be any other way.
Brent Cunningham is CJR's managing editor.
In the summer of 1995, as the media in North Carolina were nibbling at the edges of one of the biggest cultural stories of the last hundred years, Mike Leary saw, as he puts it, "a need wrapped up in an opportunity." At the time, Leary, who turns forty in July, ran a courier business that distributed free weekly newspapers. One day, he was filling a rack at a Raleigh convenience store with a paper called Spectator when he noticed a group of construction workers speaking Spanish. "They aren't interested in this paper," he thought. So Leary unloaded the courier business, got a night job as a bouncer at Red's Beach Music, scraped together $3,000, and gave them a paper they did want.
Today, the wiry, bespectacled Leary is publisher of La Conexión, which bills itself as "North Carolina's Largest and Most Widely Read Spanish Language Newspaper." He has been called a visionary and a mercenary. Either way, he managed to do something that has editors from Dalton, Georgia, to Salem, Oregon, scratching their heads: reach the legions of working-class Latino immigrants who have streamed deep into the bosom of the United States in the last fifteen years. Each week, 25,000 free copies of La Conexión are dropped at bodegas, laundromats, restaurants, and health clinics in central and eastern North Carolina; about 5 percent are returned.
Last year, Raleigh's News & Observer, one of the state's two major dailies, tried to buy La Conexión. The anemic economy scuttled the deal, but Orage Quarles III, the News & Observer's publisher, is still interested in a partnership. "It would give us an entrée into the fastest-growing market in the state," says Quarles, who engineered such a partnership between The Modesto Bee and El Sol when he was publisher there before coming to Raleigh.
Between 1990 and 2000, the Hispanic population in the United States swelled from 22 million to 35 million, drawing Latinos into a tie with African-Americans as the country's largest minority, at roughly 12 percent each. Most of the growth came not in saturated Latino enclaves of the Southwest and south Florida, but in places like Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Georgia, and North Carolina, turning the cultures of small towns inside out.
To varying degrees, this "browning" of America, as it has been called, snuck up on the media. It unfolded quietly in the murky world of illegal immigration, in meatpacking plants, on construction sites. When the 2000 Census landed on the nation's doorstep, though, the full scope of how the country was changing became clearer. The press, meanwhile, in towns like Lincoln, Nebraska, and Shelbyville, Tennessee, found itself facing many of the same marketing and coverage problems that The Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times began wrestling back in the late 1970s.
To understand how this is developing, CJR focused on a corner of North Carolina, a state where the growth of the Latino population over the last decade was among the largest in the nation, from 77,000 to 380,000. In the area known as The Triangle -- Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill -- Latinos now make up 6.1 percent of the population; still relatively small, until you consider that it grew from nearly nothing in a place where the cultural framework has been black and white for three hundred years. Since 1999, state spending on English-as-a-second-language programs jumped from $5 million to $22 million; and a study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia measured the rise in buying power of North Carolina's Latino community, from $8.3 million in 1990 to $2.3 billion in 1999.
The challenge for the press -- in North Carolina and elsewhere -- is to integrate these new communities into their daily coverage and also cultivate the essential new readers and viewers that they represent. It requires a commitment of time and money that is difficult to make, particularly in a weak economy. There are many obstacles: language and cultural barriers, high illiteracy rates, large numbers of undocumented workers, class issues within the Latino communities, the fact that our economy depends on this steady supply of cheap but often illegal labor.
In all of this, of course, the failure to diversify our newsrooms looms large. Nevertheless, many of the same experiments begun years ago in Miami and elsewhere are under way again in the nation's heartland. Mike Leary solved the puzzle by joining the Latino community. He met his wife, Lupita, an immigrant from Monterrey, Mexico, through La Conexión. She taught him Spanish on the bar stools at Red's. Today, Leary says, he speaks more Spanish than English most days. "We are absolutely an advocate for the community," he says of his paper.
For the rest of the media, it isn't that simple.
The Road Back
In March 1998, The News & Observer published a powerful story about an undocumented Mexican immigrant, Julio Granados, that took readers into his dreams, his faith, and his fears. The piece -- written by a reporter who is fluent in Spanish -- included Granados's full name, the grocery store where he worked, and a detailed account of his illegal border crossing. Two weeks after the article ran, INS agents raided the grocery store. They reportedly taunted Granados with the News & Observer article, then arrested him and five others. Granados was eventually deported, and the paper's budding relationship with the Latino community tanked.
Anders Gyllenhaal, the News & Observer's executive editor, wrote a column in which he acknowledged a lack of sensitivity to the likely consequences of the story for Granados, but raised other questions that are more difficult to answer. How to cover this story without becoming an advocate for illegal immigration? How to get beyond the us-them framework and write inclusively about Latinos?
The episode has become something of a touchstone for discussions about the media coverage of the Latino community in the Triangle. There is pre-Julio Granados and post-Julio Granados.
Ned Glascock, a veteran reporter at The News & Observer, stepped willingly into this breach. "I put my hand up and said, 'Let me cover this,'" he says. The paper's minority affairs beat had been vacant since 1997. After Granados, the editors renamed it Demographics and Culture and gave it to Glascock.
His November 1998 series, "Underground in Carolina," on the parallel worlds of immigrants in Durham and their families back in the tiny mountain village of Pahuatlán, Mexico, was, as Glascock says, "the paper's response to Julio Granados." He and photographer Robert Miller spent six months on the piece, including ten days in Mexico where they met, among others, a mother who many nights has only bread and coffee to give her children while their father works construction in the Triangle. They did not use the full names of the immigrants in Durham, or say precisely where they lived and worked. "I knew intellectually the reasons people were immigrating here," Glascock says, "but this gave me a more personal understanding of the economic desperation that causes people to uproot their lives, the tremendous toll it takes on families, and also the tremendous change occurring in both places as a result."
To find the families for his story, Glascock says he first asked the Latino advocates for help. Still nursing their anger over Julio Granados, they politely declined. So he began knocking on doors after work. "I knew that these were working-class immigrants, mainly from rural parts of Mexico, and that in their social structure they are used to being on the bottom, to having to pay their respects to everyone," he says. So he addressed them formally, asking permission to talk. "They weren't used to having someone who could conceivably be their boss address them with that level of respect."
The response, at times, was more than Glascock bargained for. "One of them asks me to try a delicacy from his village," he says. "He comes back with this jar of huge, dried black ants. I thought he was kidding, but then he started munching on them. So I did, too. We bonded over dried ants."
While Glascock broadened his cultural -- and culinary -- horizons, the editors added a new minority education issues beat and offered free Spanish lessons to reporters. The paper just hired a Latina sports writer, giving it eleven reporters who speak enough Spanish to conduct interviews. But The News & Observer's broader strategy remains, as Melanie Sill, the paper's managing editor, says, "a work in progress."
A partnership with La Conexión would be a major piece of the puzzle, particularly from a marketing standpoint; but it would not solve many of the coverage problems. "If you are trying to shift the paper to reflect changes in your community," says Gyllenhaal, "it is a whole different set of challenges. Progress is harder to measure."
One way to measure progress is through the evolution of more sophisticated coverage. "There is a difference between cultural sensitivity and cultural competency," says H. Nolo Martinez, director of Hispanic/Latino affairs for North Carolina's Governor Mike Easley. "If you are just talking about sensitivity, then you don't know what you don't know." Much of the early coverage of the Latino communities in and around Raleigh focused, predictably, on the numbers (the rapid growth), the differences (the festivals, the foods), and the problems (overwhelmed schools, a rubella outbreak). Too often, says Keith Woods, a diversity specialist at the Poynter Institute, this is where coverage stalls. "These human pathology stories are legitimate stories in the life of reporting on cultural change," he says. "But they are the easiest stories to get at, they require the least amount of internal knowledge and understanding of the community."
A two-part series in The Independent, an alternative weekly in nearby Durham with a reputation for solid investigative journalism, about a Hispanic Baptist church in Siler City, got it right, Woods says. The author, Barry Yeoman, is a free-lance writer in Durham who has written about Latino immigrants for Mother Jones and The Nation. "He had to go in and learn the community from the ground up," says Woods. "What you see when you read his stories is a presentation of people who are people of faith, people of love, of longing -- all the universal human feelings that draw people to stories are there. But in the course of that you also get the information about the growth of the Latino community in this region, the numbers, the problems."
Yeoman says he started reporting the piece in his spare time in the spring of 1999, and didn't take out his notebook until October. "I had to unlearn a lot," he says. "I had to set aside my preconceptions about religion, for instance, especially about evangelical Christianity."
In the same way, with "Underground in Carolina," Glascock had the time and the inclination to see the story through another's eyes (ironically, just what The News & Observer was aiming for with Julio Granados). But this depth of understanding is hard to get on a daily basis, and it cannot filter through an entire newsroom overnight. Frank del Olmo, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Times, says that learning how to cover southern California's Latino community has been a twenty-year process, full of good and bad decisions. The answer, ultimately, was to simply add Spanish-speaking reporters to existing beats whose focus is finding Latino angles to everyday stories. "We try to figure out if there is a different way that Latinos view the same issues that everyone else is dealing with," says del Olmo. "If there isn't, okay, but at least we ask the questions."
While the once-bitten News & Observer leans toward partnering with an established Spanish-language paper, The Herald-Sun, a 50,000-circulation family-owned paper thirty miles northeast of Raleigh, in Durham, has placed its bet on an idea that has had mixed results nationally: launch your own. Nuestro Pueblo, the Herald-Sun's monthly Spanish-language tabloid, is the darling of Durham's Latino community. It began as a bilingual column in 1998, and was the first major effort by the English-language media in North Carolina to deliver news in Spanish. There are plenty of problems with it -- circulation is inconsistent, for instance, and because it is free there is no reliable way to measure who is reading it. But, as John Herrera, a native of Costa Rica who started the state's first Latino community credit union, says, "Three years ago we were begging for a single page."
In September 2000 Nuestro Pueblo went monthly, and today ten thousand copies of the sixteen-page paper are dropped at fifty-five locations in two counties. There is talk of making it weekly, but that will require selling enough ads to justify it.
Orchestrating all this -- on a budget of $3,000 a month -- is Mark Schultz, the Herald-Sun's night metro editor. The forty-one-year-old Schultz, a Long Islander who landed in Durham thirteen years ago, is his paper's Latino strategy. "Everything we've done in this regard is attributable to Mark," says Bill Hawkins, the Herald-Sun's executive editor. Schultz created Nuestro Pueblo, edits it, shoots photos, and writes for it. He also pulls together a bilingual page that runs in The Herald-Sun each Friday. It all adds fifteen to twenty unpaid hours a week to his schedule. "I have no kids, nothing pulling me away," he says. "A lot of why people go into journalism is because it's creative. What's more creative than creating something completely new?"
Right now, the monthly is a mix of features, columns, resource lists, news briefs, and the occasional hard-news story. The three grand covers the cost of columnists, delivery, and advertising commissions. "I would love to make it more in-depth," says Schultz. "I don't know how quickly that will happen. I think you need to have a reporter assigned to the beat so that he or she can develop expertise and sources." There won't be, at least not anytime soon. Bill Hawkins is aware of this need, but says the current economic climate doesn't afford him "the luxury of adding staff." In January he informed the newsroom that there would be no raises this year.
Therein lies a dilemma for small papers like The Herald-Sun, since Nuestro Pueblo is only half of the equation. It is, as much as anything, an attempt to build brand loyalty among a population that will eventually be bilingual. Even if Nuestro Pueblo goes weekly and gets newsier, this won't change the fact that -- to cover the Latino community the way it covers education -- The Herald-Sun needs more Spanish-speakers and a greater commitment of time.
In December Harris Teeter, the Charlotte-based chain of grocery stores, fired dozens of Latino workers at its stores in the Triangle after a warning from the Social Security Administration that many of their employees' numbers were fraudulent. The twice-weekly Chapel Hill News broke the story just before Christmas, but only after Maria Palmer, the pastor of a Hispanic church in Chapel Hill, alerted editors there. More than a week after the News piece ran, The Herald-Sun followed up. Its one and only source from the Latino community? Maria Palmer.
"They are used to having the story handed to them," says Palmer, "because what they have covered has been primarily the festivals, the cutesy stories. We need other kinds of coverage of the Hispanic community. There are ugly stories like this that require investigative journalism."
Part of the problem is simply a matter of time. Claudia Assis, the reporter who wrote the Harris Teeter story for The Herald-Sun, is a native of Brazil who also speaks Spanish. But her primary beat is a county north of Durham, which sometimes leaves her little time for Latino issues. The day the Harris Teeter story came her way, for instance, Assis was in the middle of another story. "There was no way I could have gone out to a Harris Teeter store to find people to talk to," she says.
Language is a more fundamental barrier. With so few reporters who can speak Spanish, the media rely too heavily on bilingual advocates, like Maria Palmer, who find themselves speaking for a diverse Latino population in story after story. Schultz and Assis are the only ones in the Herald-Sun newsroom who speak enough Spanish to conduct complex interviews (and Schultz says he still struggles). Last year, the paper paid for thirteen weeks of Spanish lessons for anyone who wanted them, and Schultz took an immersion course in Guatemala, also on the paper's dime.
Few papers in this country have done a good job hiring -- and retaining -- minority journalists, but papers like The Herald-Sun have a particularly difficult time. For many young journalists -- Latino or otherwise -- these small papers are the first or second stop on their way to larger dailies.
But there are success stories, and cultivating talent within the local Latino community -- through community colleges, mentor programs, and internships -- is the key. "Hiring Spanish speakers can be done, but it requires taking risks and being creative," says Deborah Fisher, editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, a 63,000 circulation daily on Texas's Gulf Coast. Five years ago, Fisher's newsroom was 18 percent minority. Today it is 37 percent minority, with most of that growth coming from Latino hires. They did it, Fisher says, by working with local community colleges. "We brought them in as news assistants while they were still in school," Fisher says, "trained them, and then hired them when they graduated."
That's how Rick Rodriguez, the executive editor of The Sacramento Bee, got his start in journalism. In the early 1970s he was finishing high school in Salinas, California, when the editor of the local newspaper recruited him as a news clerk. Now he runs a paper that is one of only a few to have reached parity between its minority staff and the minority population in the community, at roughly 28 percent. "You have to get people in high school and track them, keep them interested in journalism," he says. "Just last year we started working with a high school in Sacramento that is largely Hispanic, providing mentors, providing advisers for their newspaper. You may even have to go to the junior high level, but we haven't done that yet."
At The Herald-Sun, Schultz understands that Nuestro Pueblo is only a beginning. He worries that without a broader strategy, his monthly will become the paper's Latino ghetto. "Are we fostering segregation with this kind of coverage? I don't know the answer, but I think if we are still doing this in five years, I'm not sure that will be a good thing."
When Time Warner Cable announced the addition of nine Spanish-language channels to its menu for Raleigh subscribers in January, it was big news. The upstairs bar at the El Rodeo Mexican restaurant was crammed with TV cameras, reporters, and leaders of North Carolina's fledgling Latino elite. "If you go into a neighborhood around here and want to know where the Latinos live," says John Herrera, "look for the satellite dishes."
Even without a dish, television seems the way to reach homesick Latinos, not just in North Carolina but across the country. There are seven Spanish-language networks (one of them, Telemundo, was purchased last year by NBC), and the regular networks have begun working this market, too. The Simpsons, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Monday Night Football are all available in Spanish. Given the high rate of illiteracy among the new immigrants, television enjoys a clear advantage over print in terms of reaching these communities.
Outside of Los Angeles and other established Latino enclaves, local TV news has been slow to exploit this advantage. In Atlanta, WSB-TV, the ABC affiliate, began simulcasting its evening news in Spanish two years ago. In Memphis, WHBQ-TV, the Fox affiliate, airs one story each Friday with Spanish subtitles. But that's about it.
In Raleigh, Aura Camacho Maas is speeding things up a bit. She began by helping WRAL-TV, the city's CBS station, become the first in North Carolina to simulcast its evening newscast in Spanish. "Many in this new wave of immigration are illiterate," Maas says, "and I feel it is critical to tune in at the local level in order to integrate as quickly as possible."
Maas, a native of Colombia who came to Raleigh eighteen years ago from Chicago, is not a journalist. She runs the Latin American Resource Center, an educational outreach operation she founded in the early 1990s. Three years ago, she began bugging TV news executives about doing something in Spanish. Maas made little headway until she connected with John Harris, special projects director at WRAL, in late 1999. "We had been thinking about it -- and had tried to partner with some Spanish-language radio stations -- but until we hooked up with Aura, we couldn't find a true partner," he says. "She provided the expertise we lacked."
Maas brought the translators and some seed money, and WRAL -- which was in the process of renovating its studio -- added a booth for simultaneous translation. Now, the station's six o'clock newscast can be heard in Spanish Monday through Friday on a separate audio frequency on newer TVs and VCRs. What viewers get is essentially a dubbed newscast minus the ambient sound. A piece about Nascar racing, for instance, would lack the roar of the engines.
One major problem is that no one knows who is watching. Nielsen does not measure this second-audio channel, so the only feedback is anecdotal. Another problem, critics say, is that those Latinos who do tune in don't often see their world reflected in the news, unless it is through a narrowly defined "Latino story." "In case of emergencies -- a hurricane, or a snowstorm -- the simulcast could make a life or death difference," says John Herrera. "But at this point the daily content is not usually what Latinos want."
In part, this is because local TV news, with some notable exceptions, is generally not a forum for in-depth reporting on any subject, let alone Latino immigrants. A national study last year by The Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 40 percent of local TV news stories ran thirty seconds or less, and there were as many stories about the "bizarre" as about civic institutions. A sampling of WRAL's Latino coverage, provided by the station, includes some good, but fairly predictable work. There were pieces -- ranging from ninety to 160 seconds -- on a hurricane preparedness project (organized by Maas's center), the Harris Teeter layoffs, and a church that offers mass in Spanish. The most sophisticated of the stories -- at four minutes -- followed a sixteen-year-old Latina through her pregnancy.
But TV news also faces some of the same problems as print: limited sources in the Latino communities and few reporters who speak Spanish. WRAL recently hired its first Spanish-speaking reporter. "I really believe that the way to improve our coverage in this area is by having a diverse group sitting around the table discussing what to cover and how to cover it," says Harris. "This is a first step toward that."
Maas's answer to the content problem is to produce her own show. She first tried to work something out with WRAL, but when that fell through she turned to NBC-17, the local affiliate. The half-hour public affairs show, still in the planning stages, will air one Sunday a month beginning in May, in Spanish with English subtitles. "You rarely see a story about someone in the Latino community who isn't needing something, but rather is providing something," says Maas. Now, she says, you will.
For NBC-17, Maas's show jump-starts a largely dormant effort to cover the Latino community. The station recently lost one of its two Spanish-speaking reporters and its only Spanish-speaking assignment desk editor. "The extent of our coverage has been the typical local stories about issues, such as discrimination, that cropped up," says Mike Ward, president and general manager at NBC-17. "This is a fairly robust attempt to more directly address the issues and provide a forum for discussion."
Years, Not Months
There has long been a Latino presence in the U.S., and millions of Hispanics have adapted and prospered here. But over the last decade or so a new wave of immigrants arrived. There is, suddenly, this entire Latino subculture -- cleaning hotels, building houses, gutting chickens. By mid-century, Latinos are projected to make up about a quarter of the U.S. population. But the joys and needs and contributions of the people in these new communities, to say nothing of their legal status, are not yet part of the national conversation, despite President Bush's pre-September 11 talk of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.
There will be some resistance. When the Fort Worth Star-Telegram printed one page of a twenty-four-page special section in Spanish the day after September 11, for example, readers howled. The paper was creating, callers said, the false hope that English is unnecessary. This at a paper that has published a Spanish-language sister paper, La Estrella, in some form since 1994.
The media -- not just The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but also The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer -- have the power to start this conversation, and some have begun to try. The Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas -- a town of 27,000 whose Latino population jumped 184 percent in ten years -- began publishing a Spanish-language insert, La Voz Latina, in 1997; the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, publishes the occasional piece in Spanish; in Shelbyville, Tennessee, the Times-Gazette started a weekly insert in 2000; and in Florence, Alabama, the TimesDaily produced a translated page once a week for almost a year until the losses forced editors to rethink their strategy. "I applaud the editors that are taking those first steps," says Rick Rodriguez, of The Sacramento Bee. "And they will be, by necessity, baby steps. There is a definite learning curve, and it won't be a learning curve of months, but rather of years."
Brent Cunningham is CJR's managing editor.