The Invisible Divide Between Rich and Poor

This morning NPR did a story on a General Motors’ employee benefit program. It turns out that GM provides many of its white collar workers with company cars and free gas. This is not such a shock for a car company, but this program is now being seen in a post-bailout frame, alongside the overblown controversy around AIG’s corporate bonuses.

The narrative that has emerged in the media in regard to these stories is a kind of “gotcha journalism” that focuses on trying to point out any corporate excess from companies that received bailout money. The logic presumes that companies who come begging the American people for a handout should not be squandering their dough. And on those points, I tend to agree. But I worry that the novelty of this kind of journalism will soon wear off and when it does, there will be a more important story that goes left untold.

Whether it be GM or AIG, private jets or big bonuses, corporate excess has been around for a long time. By shedding a new light on the lifestyle and finances of corporate elites, the media is giving us the clearest picture in recent history of how the other half lives. But, while the media and lawmakers seem more than willing to jump on each new example of corporate excess, they are reticent to extend their critiques to the system at large. Instead of talking about how our economic policies have privileged certain ways of doing business and led to many of the corporate polices we are now lamenting, the media and lawmakers focus their vitriol on a few “isolated” examples. By blaming the bad eggs, and ignoring the system, they perpetuate the notion that punishing a few people will fix the problem.

But they have the problem all wrong. What each of these stories highlights, while never mentioning it explicitly, is the increasing gap between rich and poor. This is nothing new. The news media has always been loathe to talk about the income divide in America. However, the lack of any discussion about America’s income divide is becoming conspicuous when the news constantly juxtaposes stories about people losing their jobs, losing their homes, and struggling to stay afloat, with stories about corporate compensation packages, private jets, and lavish retreats. What is consistently missing is the connection between these two narratives.

These topics are treated as separate, as if one had nothing to do with other. When, in reality it is the corporate culture, developed in part due to poor policies and toothless regulation of our financial markets, that has cost so many people their livlihoods. How can we understand where we are if we are unwilling to talk about how we got here? Faced with incredible examples of corporate greed and disheartening stories of struggling communities, the media does us all a disservice by not connecting the dots.


  1. Presto says:

    Modern media, being part of the same corporate establishment as the organizations they cover, cannot and will not address the systemic roots of these stories. If they did, reporters would have to look in the mirror and critique themselves and their bosses. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen.

    This is a critical problem, because these problems *are* systemic. I worked in the quality control field for years, analyzing the root causes of problems within the company and its supply chain. The thing that I learned, and I believe that Deming would agree with me, is that problems are rarely caused by special circumstances or actors. The root causes of nearly any event in society are systemic if you dig deep enough. There are exceptions, but the rule proves to be true quite often.

    So what do we do about this? We as individuals and collectively need to ask these questions for ourselves. We cannot rely on the Fourth Estate to do it for us. I don’t have the answers, but I think that it is critically important to ask these questions, and keep digging to find the answers.

    BTW, I’m ptglidden on Twitter. We’ve talked before, briefly.

  2. Steve says:

    No doubt journalism has dropped the ball on this issue and many others… wait I mean journatainment. The Spanish-American war comes to mind, I suspect that journalism has always been business first and social contract second. I would put it this way… the unwillingness of news organizations to cover relative issues corresponds with business taking over institutions that were once governed by the university and government. Because business men can do it better and competition will make it cheaper, (thinking my phone bill here), which leads to a really long list of broken promises, which eventually leads to issues of growing poverty.

    I would not think it falsehood to say many publishing companies are complicit in many of our current social problems. They did no one a favor by turning a blind eye to the obvious.

    “Gotcha Journalism” is not going to go away anytime to soon. There simply is too much money in it, at least for the moment. Shining a positive light on it, one could suppose it offers an outline of a few isolated facts to motivate the uninformed for better or worse. I think the truth is that if you want to involve yourself in complicated issues you eventually have to turn to academia, because thats where real insight and debate over issues takes place. This equates to the web in many cases.

    As for solutions to these problems, it may be time for editorial staffs to have a strong cup of coffee and take a good hard look at what has happened at key points in our current history, as many of their customers are suddenly living the lives of people they may have been telling “get a job you whiner” a year or two ago.

    All of this brought to you by the we can do it better businessmen and allowed to do whatever they wanted by journatainment, and a gov. willing sit back on principles and let it happen.

    While we may not always be able to depend on the fourth estate as Presto states, I suggest it is not unreasonable to demand that journalists actually cover issues in a meaningful way. Perhaps an answer to some of the issues Josh has brought up is to organize and engage journalists and their masters on an issue by issue basis.

  3. Josh says:

    Hmm – I am always interested in how my points are read once they are loosed on the world and in this case your responses have made worry a bit about the tone of my original piece.

    I never intended my lament to sound as though I was bashing journalists specifically. Just as I was pointing out the systemic nature of economic crisis, I was also hoping to point out the systemic nature of our media crisis. So let me do that now.

    For me, journalists are working inside an ecosystem that – through corporate ownership and a blind drive for profits – has privileged a certain kind of product. There are a lot of good journalists out there (and likely a fair number of bad ones too), but the journalists I talk to want to do good news, want to connect the dots, want to build connections and context for their audience. But within a business that glorifies sensationalism, soundbites, and celebrity gossip – there is no time or incentive to do real civic journalism.

    I agree that we need to make it clear what we want from our news, but we also need to work to create a system where what we want can be produced.

  4. Presto says:

    Josh, I agree with you that there are many great journalists out there. There are even some reporters willing to be introspective. But as you say, the current climate is not very receptive to such journalism, and we as consumers are partly responsible for that, given the popularity of celebrity and “gotcha” stories and lack of vocal demand for deeper reporting.

    I also think that the current ownership & financing structures of media are a large factor. A reporter who wants to look at the systemic roots of the economic crisis would find themselves taking on people who are major advertisers and who are also needed on camera to get ratings. I don’t think that the CEO of AIG would have been willing to go on CNBC if Cramer and Co. were asking serious, deep questions of them.

    Regarding the income gap that you mention in your original post, I think that the problem goes much deeper than relative income levels. I think that we need to question the very hierarchical, centralized nature of society as a whole, and the income gap is a symptom of that problem, as is media consolidation. There are many other symptoms, including our political situation and the environment. I plan to write a great deal on this in the future, but I don’t want to write a book-length comment so I’ll just say goodnight for now.

  5. Josh says:

    Presto – Agreed, and well said on both accounts.

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