Tweeting for Poor Folks? That'll be the Day!

05/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A pop quiz: who haven't you heard much about from the media and politicians in the last year:

A) Tea Partiers
B) Netroots bloggers
C) Sarah Palin
D) Wall Street bankers
E) The poor.

If you guessed E, you get a gold star on your forehead. Since the campaign--and reputation--of John Edwards dissolved in scandal, the issue of poverty has been almost totally absent from the national conversation. We hear about middle-class tax cuts, the squeeze on the middle class, the shrinking of the middle class, and the problems of health care for the middle class. This makes some sense on the part of politicians, because it's the middle class that votes.

The mainstream media was never terribly enthusiastic about covering the poor. The way up the ladder in journalism was always covering politics and wars, not the back alleys of the nation's ghettoes. One editor I know referred to that beat as "trash can journalism." But, if only out of guilt, the mainstream media would try to at least pay lip service to the issues of the poor, because there were so many of them--both the issues and the poor. And some reporters did an excellent job.

But the new media order that is emerging--the internet with its myriad of bloggers, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and 24-hour cable--is even less centered on the poor than traditional media. The guilt factor is long gone. As newspapers desperately chase ad revenue, survival is the issue. And since few people who are actually poor have access to the new technology, those voices are even deeper underground than before. (Yes, advocates for the poor do use the new media, but have had little impact on the national agenda.)

As Michiko Kakutani points out in the New York Times,

Technology is turning us into a global water-cooler culture, with millions of people sending each other (via e-mail, text messages, tweets, You Tube links) gossip, rumors and the sort of amusing-entertaining-weird anecdotes and photographs they might once have shared with pals over a coffee break. And in an effort to collect valuable eyeballs and clicks, media outlets are increasingly pandering to that impulse -- often at the expense of hard news.

She quotes the comedian and commentator Bill Maher: "I have the theory that news is now driven not by editors who know anything. I think it's driven by people who are slacking off at work and surfing the Internet. It's like a country run by America's Funniest Home Videos."

And who wants to look at America's mean streets on Home Videos or chat around the water cooler about teen pregnancy or how poor women are increasingly the new class of AIDS victims?

Americans have long had idiosyncratic ideas about the poor. We believe that we are a classless society, that with enough grit and determination, everyone can succeed.

In "Framing Class, Media Representations of Wealth and Class in America," critic Diana Kendall says that the media rarely discusses class in an explicit way, but its framing of stories sends strong messages about who's good and who's not, according to their social class. The wealthy are usually seen as successful individuals to be emulated. Even when they crash and burn, like Wall Street bankers, they are admired for their lifestyles.

But, say researchers Heather E. Bullock and Wendy R. Williams of the University of California-Santa Cruz and Karen Fraser Wyche of New York University, the media make little effort to openly discuss class privilege, class-based power differences, and inequalities. As a result, the poor are either rendered invisible or portrayed in terms of "characterological deficiencies and moral failings (e.g., substance abuse, crime, sexual availability, violence)." In both frames, the poor are seen as "outsiders" who deviate from middle-class values and norms.

Usually, people do make distinctions between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor The aged (white) widow of a war veteran, the innocent child struck by disease, the hardworking factory worker out of a job, these are deserving folks. Welfare mothers, pregnant teens, and kids on ghetto streets who fall prey to gang culture, these are the undeservers.

But even that distinction may be breaking down. In a shocking episode broadcast widely on the web during the health care debate, Tea Partiers in Ohio cruelly mocked a shabbily dressed elderly man in a wheelchair who had Parkinson's disease. The man held a sign in his lap supporting health care reform, and the Tea Party men derided him as a communist, and mockingly threw dollar bills at him, saying he was asking for a "handout."

In this case, the web uncovered a shocking episode of cruelty and probably elicited sympathy for the man with Parkinson's. But some argue that, overall, the culture of the web, with its anonymity, peer pressure, and hunger for the new and trendy, can foster a culture of selfishness and cruelty.

Or at least, a culture of trivia. Twitter, You Tube and Facebook are filled with funny pictures of dogs, young people partying in silly hats and compromising positions, and tweets about where the latest hot celebrity can be found.

Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget that the web "is comprised of wave after wave of juvenilia, with rooms of M.I.T. Ph.D. engineers not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks."

As for Facebook, he writes, the true beneficiary will be someone who figures out the right business model. "The real customer is the advertiser of the future, but this creature has yet to appear at the time this is being written. The whole artifice, the whole idea of fake friendship, is just bait laid by the lords of the clouds to lure hypothetical advertisers--we might call them messianic advertisers--who might someday show up."

And those cloud lords will have little interest in such boring, unprofitable stuff as stories about poverty in America.

We need a news media that will explain that poverty is more about economic structures than about dumb, lazy, undeserving people, and that if we stop screaming at each other (or endlessly amusing ourselves) we can find solutions that really work.

I am not, however, holding my breath.