Update: No sooner had I written this post than the DC media delivered a perfect illustration of the huge gulf between what obsesses the Washington press corps and what the rest of America is worrying and talking about: the no-story-there story about the possibility of Hillary Clinton replacing Joe Biden as VP on the 2012 Democratic ticket. Bob Woodward got the ball rolling, telling John King last night that the swap "is on the table" and that "some of Hillary's advisers see it as a real possibility."
No matter, the rest of the media pounced and ran with the non-story -- it was all over the cable channels today (I was on Hardball talking about it with Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell).
Then, after much media oxygen had been expended, Woodward quickly walked back the story in an email to the New York Times, saying the swap was "on the table" in the same way "any legitimate vote-getting strategy is always on the table in politics."
In other words, there was absolutely no story there. As a rumor, this one merited about as much attention as the one about Obama instituting Sharia law or the "news" that Donald Trump was mulling a run for the presidency. Actually, at least in that story you had Trump himself saying it, not his "advisers." ("Adviser," by the way, is the lowest possible source on the Washington food chain. It's like the plankton of politics. Essentially it means: "anybody in Washington.")
Woodward is always patting himself on the back for his reporting, but reporting is exactly what this story lacked.
We return you now to your regularly ignored economic devastation and vanishing middle class...
In the green room before taping Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday, I had an unexpected conversation with my fellow panelist Joe Klein. He'd just finished a cross-country road trip, getting an up-close look at lives that "have been ripped up by the economic devastation of recent years." He embarked on the trip, he wrote, because "I really don't trust the things I've been seeing on TV and reading in the papers."
The trip had been an eye-opener. "The people I met never talked about the things the Washington press does," he told me. The disconnect between the focus of his fellow reporters and the focus of the people he met on his travels was "transformational." "My sense of what's important has changed in a big way," he said.
I'd had the same reaction while writing Third World America, and hearing the personal stories of hundreds of Americans as I've traveled the country on my book tour. The more stories I hear -- stories both of struggle and of resilience in the face of struggle -- the more stunned I am by the disconnect between the DC media and the country they purport to cover. Beltway journalists are mostly connected to the political horse race. Politicians are mostly connected to their big ticket donors and special interest groups. Neither is connected to the real reality -- which sounds redundant but, in this case, is actually a meaningful term, since so much of what the media delivers these days is fake reality.
Flying back to the East Coast after taping Real Time, I came across a great quote by Thomas Paine, who had exhorted his fellow colonists to be skeptical of the "interested men" whose version of events was colored by their monetary ties to the British Crown. "It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow," wrote Paine. "The evil is not sufficiently brought to their doors to make them feel the precariousness with which all American property is possessed."
It echoed what Klein had told me a few hours earlier -- his view of things having been deeply impacted by witnessing modern scenes of sorrow and precariousness. Here's what he wrote in his post from recession-ravaged Detroit: "Ten days into my cross-country road trip and I'm not finding much of the fist-shaking, Tea Party anger that you see on television. People are freaked out, though. They're frustrated and anxious."
He also found, as I have again and again, that the true narratives of this recession don't fit neatly into the obsolete right-versus-left frame the establishment media want to force them into. As Klein put it:
...when I ask whether they'd rather see the government closing the deficit or spending money to create jobs, most of them say jobs. There are ideological contradictions aplenty, which leads me to conclude that the notion of America as a conservative or moderate or liberal country is a fiction created by those of us who sit on top of Mount Opinion.
But, unlike with most mountains, the view from Mount Opinion gets worse the higher you go.
While in Detroit, Joe tells the story of John McGraw, the president of a division of a power-tool company. Or at least that's what he was until it was shuttered by its European owners. He sent 4,000 to 5,000 resumes all over the world. "This is my full-time job. I do it seven days a week," he told Klein. "I've got 2,300 rejection letters sitting in my computer; the rest didn't even bother to respond. I understand. I'm 61. They can hire someone 20 years younger than me for less money... But you wonder where this country is going. You wonder how the kids will find jobs and buy houses."
In the final post of his trek, Klein came to this conclusion: "One thing I realized on this trip was how much time I spend immersed in the media back home -- reading newspapers and blogs and books, watching TV -- and how little time I spend immersed in other people."
All of us in the media need to do a lot more of the latter and a lot less of the former. We
need to go beyond reporting the cold, hard facts of the recession -- as important as they are. Yes, we need to hear about the one in five children in poverty, or the one in five Americans who are unemployed or underemployed, or the one in eight mortgages in default or foreclosure, or the one in eight Americans on food stamps.
But we need to dig deeper and tell the personal stories behind those statistics. We need narrative. At the moment, the primary emotion being covered by the press is anger. And 99 times out of 100, when the media decide to do the "look-at-all-the-economic-anxiety-there-is-in-flyover-country" story, what they really want to talk about is the Tea Party. Which inevitably leads to yet another horse race analysis on the Tea Party's effect on the midterms.
Happily, Joe Klein is not the only high-profile journalist who has decided to start reporting on the real reality. Diane Sawyer just took her ABC World News Tonight team across the country, visiting her staff's hometowns to "search for innovative ideas that are helping turn the economy around," as she wrote on HuffPost.
In returning to her own hometown of Louisville, she found that "everyone is coming up with creative solutions to take care of each other -- mothers swapping kids' clothes, landlords giving tenants breaks on their rent and small businesses donating prom dresses for teenagers who can't afford them."
Sawyer tells the story of Anne Smith, who operates an ecumenical group of Christians, Jews, and (sorry, Newt) Muslims that helps convince utility companies to give people in need a break on their bills.
She also introduces us to Brad Walker, manager of the Brown Hotel. Instead of laying people off, he came up with the idea to cross-train the entire staff, so everybody does whatever job is needed. "I just thank God for the Brown," said David Graham, a doorman who also makes drinks. "They put us in other areas -- instead of sending us home -- and I have to thank God."
Sawyer also reports on how a small business called Flavorman was forced to lay off a quarter of its workers, but then organized a drive to donate shoes to a charity called Soles4Souls. "It was one of those things where we were all having a rough time," said Marlena McGuffey, who oversaw the company's drive. "Things were bad everywhere but no matter how bad it gets, there's always someone who has it worse."
Also deciding to jump out of the DC/NY media bubble is MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan, who recently did a segment featuring Seth Reams. He's the Portland man I wrote about in Third World America who, after being laid off as a concierge, and while looking for work, started a site called We'veGotTimeToHelp.org that connects people with extra time on their hands -- often people who have been laid off -- with people in need of help.
Yesterday on Dylan's show, we had a follow-up discussion with Seth that included Susie Buffett who, coming from the other end of the economic spectrum, has turned her attention and considerable resources to improving her hometown of Omaha.
Seth has now gotten calls and emails from over 50 cities that want to start local chapters of We'veGotTimeToHelp. It shows how contagious a great idea is. "We are overwhelmed by the compassion and selflessness of Americans all across this land," he wrote on HuffPost. "They are saying 'my city needs this' and they are saying 'we've got time to help.' Sometimes it's hard, whether you have a job or not, to get out and volunteer. It can be uncomfortable or even a little scary. It's hard to meet new people and to step out of your comfort zone. It can be hard to offer assistance when you think you don't have any skills. But, let me let you in on a little secret. You do have something to offer. We all do.... whatever your background is and whatever your circumstances are, what you can offer to those in need is hope."
StoryCorps on NPR is another outlet featuring stories told by ordinary Americans. It's one of the largest oral history projects in the country. Tune in and you can hear stories like the one of Dr. Pedro "Joe" Greer, a Miami doctor who has opened facilities that treat thousands of homeless and low-income patients a year, or of Gus Hernandez, a mortgage consultant who lost his house, was forced to sleep in a car with his family, then found a guardian angel in motel owner Siddiqi Hansoti, who allowed Gus and his family to stay in the motel for free until he got back on his feet.
Highlighting stories of both struggle and success during hard times is one of the main features of HuffPost's Third World America page. Stories like Cheryl Jacobs': she's a lawyer with 25 years experience in tort law who was laid off in 2008. She began doing pro-bono cases with the Philadelphia Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program, a program that facilitates mediation before foreclosure and in many cases allows people to stay in their homes. "Why do I do this?" she says, "When the mediation works, when I know I've kept somebody in their homes, the feeling is so amazing."
What if everyone in the DC media woke up obsessed with stories like these, instead of endless permutations on the 2010 political horse race? What if Mike Allen's Playbook, as well as featuring headlines like:
"WHAT THE WEST WING IS READING - NEWSWEEK Poll: Anger Unlikely to Be Deciding Factor in Midterms," and "McCain jealous of Graham as new maverick,"
also featured headlines like:
"WHAT THE WEST WING IS STUDYING -- INNOVATIVE SOCIAL MEDIA WEBSITE TRANSFORMS COMMUNITIES NATIONWIDE" and "NEW MORTGAGE MODIFICATION PROGRAM REPLICATED ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO SAVE MILLIONS OF HOMEOWNERS"?
Maybe if the Washington press corps focused more on the casualties of the economic devastation in their own country, they'd care less about the horse race -- and a very different kind of story would "win the morning."