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Dale Maharidge Interview: Covering The Economic Pain Of Real Americans

First Posted: 11/28/09 05:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 03:10 PM ET

Dale Maharidge

Is today's media built for these times? Is it capable of covering the widespread economic downturn in a way that conveys the pain so many Americans are feeling to the country and the world? And can it be done in a way that doesn't feel like a view of devastation from 30,000 feet up in the air? For insight, we turned to a man who is built to cover this crisis, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and Columbia School of Journalism professor Dale Maharidge.

For the past 30 years, Maharidge has dedicated himself to telling stories of the working class in books such as Pulitzer-Prize-winning And Their Children After Them, which revisited the sharecropper families that Walker Evans and James Agee first brought to light with their own Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Journey To Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass, a book that inspired two songs by Bruce Springsteen. Maharidge also boasts a fifteen-year-long career in newspapers, most prominently at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Sacramento Bee.

During his career, Maharidge has found that the working class has always been a community historically underserved by journalists. "Over the past 30 years, I haven't exactly had to jostle through crowds of journalists covering the story of the working poor. There were no 'boys in the boxcar' when I rode the rails with the new jobless in the early 1980s. And even today, not a lot of deep work is being done."

Currently, Maharidge is completing work on his latest book, Someplace Like America, in which he revisits, after 30 years, the people he met in Journey To Nowhere. "This book is a document of the past 30 years. " he writes, "It will rely on the ultimate experts -- the people who are most affected by the bad economy."

I spoke to Maharidge by phone in Arlington, Virginia.

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THE HUFFINGTON POST: One of the things we're trying to get a real fix on here at the Huffington Post are the real, human effects of the economic downturn, and the question I want to ask right off the bat is: How come the media fails to address this matter in a substantive way?

DALE MAHARIDGE: There are many reasons for this that predate newspapers getting in trouble, but which are of course exacerbated by cutbacks. But even before, people were very, very unwilling to tackle this issue.

THE HUFFINGTON POST: Structurally speaking, what's been inhibiting this sort of coverage?

MAHARIDGE: Reporters, for a long while, have seen themselves as an elite class of people. I had a colleague, back in the 80's, who was covering the steelworkers, who would be very dismissive of them. She said, "They aren't really middle-class people." And I said, "I beg your pardon?" She replied, "Well, they're not like us."

Well, she was just downsized. She was just laid off from the newspaper she went to. We're all steelworkers now -- I think reporters are just now realizing it. A lot of the time, during the '80s and '90s, the press saw themselves as part of the elite. The salaries were good. A lot of journalists were fat and happy until just a few years ago and felt they were not part of the working class. This created a gulf between subject and journalist. Often, it meant the working poor would get covered at Christmas and Thanksgiving, in stories that were "weepers."

There is also the element of the business press, which failed so hugely, and which has been so well-documented. It borders on boosterism. But even among reporters who aren't business writers, there's always this breathless sense of "everything is going to be all right, everything is going to be great." And I don't know why that is.

So the boosterism in the coverage was bad. The fact that members of the press saw themselves as part of the elite, that was another problem. And then, the problem's cultural. That we're a "middle class society" is a myth. We don't like talking about the word "class" unless it's preceded by the word "middle." And so, if you start talking about these issues, that's who you focus on. And that leaves out millions -- tens of millions of people -- and this basically defines what we are as a nation.

For years. the debate was the welfare debate and reporters fell into the trap. It was a Republican agenda issue, really, that coalesced around Charles Murray, who wrote the book Losing Ground. So all through the '80s and into the '90s, until Bill Clinton signed welfare reform in 1996, welfare was the de facto "poor" story, when in fact only a peak five percent of Americans were on welfare. It's less than two percent now. The vast majority of poor people have always worked and not taken welfare. But welfare dominated the debate for much of the last 30 years.

Welfare is over, for all intents and purposes. So now what? Now we've got those 50 or 60 million working poor people whose children are going to bed hungry at night. Adding to their ranks are falling white-collar people, now. So now what's the answer for those people?

THE HUFFINGTON POST: It sounds to me like coverage of the poor over the past 30 or 40 years was first founded on a false premise and, now that the false premise has been eliminated, we're left with a clueless media that lacks the facility to approach this issue.

MAHARIDGE: No way to approach it, exactly. And so what's the answer? Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary, had a posting at his site a few months ago, talking about the possibilities of a "V-shaped recovery" and a "u-shaped recovery." He said that the real problem is that the consumer society is not going to come back. The credit is not going to be there. The second mortgages are not going to be there. He said that we need to create "X" -- something new. And that's what the press should be concentrating on.

What are we going to do to get to the next stage. What we've done has not worked. Basically, we've had bubble after bubble. There are no bubbles left. I think the press should be highlighting the ways people are moving beyond the consumer society. People who are not using credit anymore. People who are dealing with this problem.

But the bigger issue is this: we have to create jobs for people. We have to cover labor. All of those beats that were dead, especially labor, we have to reinvigorate, because labor is where this story is.

THE HUFFINGTON POST: One of the things you've mentioned is that, for a long time, the way the working poor have been covered is that a reporter will parachute in at Thanksgiving or Christmas, do the soup-kitchen story and get air-lifted back out. And a few months ago I read an excellent article in Vice Magazine about Detroit, where the hammer of this economy has fallen hard and it has become the premier spot for reporters-slash-poverty tourists to document working-class destitution on the cheap. Ruin porn, they called it.

MAHARIDGE: That sort of thing is easy to do. I like what Time Magazine has done: they bought a house in Detroit and they are going to have a year-long presence there. A colleague of mine, she's going to go there and find the kind of stories we're talking about: who's doing things in Detroit that are working. I think that's good, live there and go beyond the ruin porn. That's fantastic. I applaud that.

There are some people doing some good work out there. Scott Bransford's "TARP Nation" story on tent cities for the High Country News is a great example. That took the story to the next level. There are some good journalists out there, doing good work. I want to see more of that. And from what people have told me, this Time series in Detroit is going to be another serious effort.

THE HUFFINGTON POST: At the root of the financial crisis seems to be an overall asymmetry of information. You've touched on this a little already, in distinguishing between news that informs and what the business press had become: an outlet for naked boosterism. Is there a way of combating this asymmetry?

MAHARIDGE: This goes back to the need for reporters to get off their asses and get back to talking to real people. Right now, there's too much emphasis on the talking heads, the focus on Wall Street. There's a colleague of mine -- I won't name names -- who'd advise reporters, "Don't bother those ordinary people -- the story is in the boardroom." I tell journalists to ignore that advice, take it to the street, do some real shoe-leather reporting. Take a look at the paperwork that people have been made to sign, look at how they've been coerced. Too may reporters want to focus on the sound bytes. Some are just lazy. But most have this default position where they're going to repeat the official line.

THE HUFFINGTON POST: How do you arm your students to go out and combat this?

MAHARIDGE: I tell them, three things make a great story: people, people, and people. By that I mean, real people. Go out and find the bottom of the food chain, because that is where most Americans live. The emphasis for the past 30 years has been the adoration of wealth, the celebritization of wealth. We're all rich. Everything's looking up. But, no. Most Americans are working poor. Four-fifths of us who work for salaries or wages make less than $20 an hour. This is a poor country. We're a nation of the working poor, and it's something that people don't want to acknowledge.

Ultimately, what are we as journalists? We are educators. Our job is to show America to Americans, and America to the world. So we have to show the story of what's going on in this country at the bottom -- the bottom being the vast majority of Americans.

I think we have to ask ourselves: "What are we as journalists?" I go back to journalists and fiction writers who did journalistic work, like Sherwood Anderson. John Steinbeck did some journalism. He really reported The Grapes Of Wrath. But there were journalists like Mary Heaton Vorse, who covered the farm strike in the middle of the country in the 1930s. Did some amazing work out there. Louis Adamic spent seven years driving and flying around America, documenting this stuff. And I think collectively, the journalism produced a better country.

Our job is to go out and measure the impact of policy. The impact of political decisions and how they affect Americans. Like I said, our job is to show America to Americans and America to the world. I think journalism lost that. We have a need to fundamentally return to these basics.

THE HUFFINGTON POST: One of the things that strikes me as a major obstacle, in this current economic downturn, is that it is vast in every way. It hits all manner of industry, and all manner of geographic location. There's a ton of ground to cover. It's foreclosures in the Southwest, it's the auto industry in Detroit, it's the decline of the Rust Belt working class, it's textile towns in the South, devastation in New Orleans... and beyond that there's unemployment, credit market downturns, health care costs. It's so hard to cover it without ending up being some sort of poverty generalist. But there's no silver bullet, get this story and the rest falls in place, is there?

MAHARIDGE: I ask this very question in a course of mine. There's a labor studies professor named John Russo at Youngstown State University, he's the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies. They do a lot of cutting-edge research on this topic, I really respect their work. Well, I asked John this same question, and when he stopped laughing, he said, "Well, do you want a book?"

His take is that we've let the industry of making things die. We won't recover until we start making things again. It was a 30-year decline and it could take 30 years to get back. As journalists, though, we have to each go into the mine and take a piece. Maybe it's industrial policy, maybe it's labor policy. But I don't think any one person can just dive into this and find the "silver bullet." It's just too big for that.

We have to raise questions, the foremost being, "What sort of country do we want to be?" I think something big is happening. I think there's a massive cultural shift. The country is not so much liberal or conservative -- as it's usually portrayed. It's different. John Russo talks about the "parabola," where left meets right and they agree on the same issues. I think what we have going on is that people are scared and they're stressed. And this is giving rise to populism. Is is a liberal or a conservative populism? I think if you look just at the town hall meetings you'd say it's a conservative populism, but remember: this is just a fraction of the electorate.

I go back to the 1930s, which I study in depth for insight into what's going on now. In the midst of the 1930s, you have two forces. There was going to be a Communist revolution! They never even came close. And near the end of the 1930s the right wing was ascending in the form of Father Charles Coughlin, and there were mini-pogroms in New York City. These guys were nasty... they were thugs, basically. But neither was going to win. And I don't think this country is going to go far left or far right.

I spoke to all sorts of people, researching Someplace Like America. What people are doing is that they are cutting back from credit. Upper class people who hit the bricks. They're giving up on credit. There's a mindset shift going on in this country. People are hungry for knowledge, and they're a lot more ready for change than the Obama administration is likely to provide. People want something done. What should be done? We can argue those points.

But we have to make things. All wealth comes from the soil and sea. I lived in an Iowa town for a year for a book I wrote called Denison, Iowa. Middle of corn country. There was one high-tech firm in Denison, and they did the billing for rural electric cooperatives. They had sixteen employees. High tech jobs, great wages, but none of it would have existed if they didn't grow corn. If the corn stops growing tomorrow, those jobs are gone. That's a microcosm of the country.

[Dale Maharidge's latest book, Someplace Like America is slated to be published in September 2010.]

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