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by Arianna Huffington
Are We on Our Way to a Media Tipping Point?
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 D.C. 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 deliver these days is fake reality.
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, Ky., 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."
What if everyone in the D.C. media woke up obsessed with stories like these, instead of endless permutations on the 2010 political horse race?
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."
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