The Liberal Media Strike Again

by Susan J. Douglas

In These Times magazine, January 2002


As the "hunt for Bin Laden" dominates the network news, the heated pursuit is providing the Bush administration with excellent cover against news of more pesky issues. While reporters, talking heads and the president himself speculate over whether Bin Laden is in Tora Bora, Pakistan or St. Moritz, serious problems, like the significant rise in homelessness, the consequences of "welfare reform" (now coming home to roost), the increase in hunger (especially among children), and the dire consequences of September 11 on low-wage workers (unionized or not) remain virtually ignored.

Yet Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS reporter who says he used to be a liberal but left the fold because the media too often slant the news deliberately to "the left," suggests we shouldn't wear out our heartstrings for the homeless. Now out on the cable and talk radio hustings promoting his new book, Bias, Goldberg told Paula Zahn on CNN that most of the homeless are drunks, drug addicts or deinstitutionalized mental patients who have been portrayed more sympathetically on the news because of the lobbying efforts of their advocates.

The mayors of 27 cities seem to see things a bit differently. A report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, released on December 11, showed the largest increase in demand for emergency food and shelter in 10 years. In New York, the number of homeless people is the highest since the city started keeping records. And 40 percent of the homeless are families with children, debunking Goldberg's stereotype of the bum drinking serial bottles of Night Train Express.

Despite Goldberg's claims about the clout of homeless advocates, we sure haven't seen many stories on TV-and certainly not on the "smoke 'em out of their holes" cable channels-about the staggering rise in homelessness for mothers and their kids. You know, been there, done that.

Jay Levin, writing in the Los Angeles Times, notes that even before 9/11 the leaders of five major hunger relief organizations "declared a countrywide food emergency." Los Angeles County leads the country in hunger and poverty: More than 3 million people are poor, and 600,000 went hungry in 2000. Forty-five percent of those classified as "food insecure" were children.

In July, the Economic Policy Institute released a study documenting that 29 percent of working families in the United States with one to three kids under 12 don't earn enough to afford basic necessities like food, housing or health care. But because the media are so damn liberal, we haven't seen these kids on TV either.

Remember all those profiles of promiscuous, neglectful, parasitic, unwed welfare mothers the news media trafficked in when Clinton and his allies on the right campaigned to "end welfare as we know it" Where are those welfare mothers today? In Los Angeles, 200,000 single mothers will be dropped from the roles-as per the rules-in 2003. In rural areas like West Virginia, women make up between 70 and 80 percent of welfare recipients. The average recipient is a white mother in her early thirties with two kids.

West Virginia is one of those states that has a five-year lifetime limit on welfare. What will happen to those women and their kids who live where there are no jobs, non-existent transportation systems and no day care? Will the news media cover these women then, especially if they don't fit into the dominant (and infantile) framework of Bush's conquest over "the evildoers" or jaunty images of him on the ranch entertaining foreign leaders?

It's not that the media should focus inward once again. What's really amazing about 9/11 is that after all the passionate rhetoric about multiple "wake-up calls," the nightly news on TV remains a half-hour long. Back in the early '60s, TV news was 15 minutes long, usually consisting of rip-and-read stories delivered by stone-pillar anchors. The wrenching images of the civil rights movement and the Kennedy assassination changed that.

Now, more than ever, even given the limitations of most TV news as we know it, Americans need much more in-depth reporting about our own country and the rest of the world. Instead, we're right back to where we were on September 10, with overly simplified, superficial news, most of it determined by government sources and handouts, all of which lets Bush and his plutocrats off the hook.

The networks give us cops-and-robbers stories about "the hunt" in the mountains, which we are meant to watch voyeuristically before going back into the somnambulant state the Bush administration most desires of us all. Such coverage emphasizes that we are technologically advanced and they are "backward" cave dwellers, rats on the run. Flattering, really, if you keep evidence of the barbarity of our own public policies off the screen.


Susan J. Douglas, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, is the author of Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media and, most recently, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. She is currently working on an examination of how motherhood has been portrayed in the mass media.

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