An Interview with Don Barlett

What journo newbies (and the rest of us) can learn from an old master

After writing nearly 500 posts over the last few years on health care, Medicare, and Social Security, I have observed that, for the most part, voices of ordinary people affected by policy changes decreed by elites and passed on by the press have been absent from the discussion. That raised a question: Why and for whom are we really writing? So I turned to Don Barlett, a partner in the legendary reporting duo of Barlett and [Jim] Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer, later of Time and now at Vanity Fair. They have the distinction of winning two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Magazine Awards, so I figured they could tell me about why their work connected with the public, especially in ways that reportage does not always do today. Their series “America: What Went Wrong” chronicled what was happening to workers in the early 1990s in a period of great economic dislocation. It was later turned into a book. Their new book, The Betrayal of the American Dream, will be out next year.

Trudy Lieberman: What was the key ingredient that made your series, “America: What Went Wrong”, connect with people?

Don Barlett: It brought all the pieces together. One phrase we heard over and over was “I thought this was happening only to me. They thought they were alone.” There’s no question the story hit a nerve because people saw themselves in it. There were 400,000 to 500,000 reprints, and the book was on the best seller list for eight months.

TL: Can you give some specifics about how that series connected so strongly with ordinary workers?

DB: We interviewed workers who had lost their jobs in industries that had given people a solid middle class living. And not high-income jobs. Jim would interview a shoe worker in Missouri and I would interview a glass worker in West Virginia and when we returned to Philadelphia and typed up the notes, the stories were identical.
These industries were the glue that held small towns together. For the first time you saw how government policies were destroying a way of life.

TL: What else was going on?

DB: The news media portrayed this economic dislocation as a temporary recession. But in fact it was structural. In western Pennsylvania, work from a transformer plant was being shipped to Mexico. Wages were being lowered and benefits eliminated. A lot of the blue collar guys had nothing. One called COBRA a fraud. He had just gotten a bill for it which he had a hard time paying. We each spent a lot of time in different parts of the country. Reporting was an ongoing process. We interviewed people who worked in these plants and they were having a problem finding new work. All of a sudden, their lives were turned upside down by forces they never saw coming. The series was very popular with people, but not with economists. That was the last time people still believed their government.

TL: What do you mean by putting all the pieces together?

DB: We looked at who was profiting. Who was making money off these government policies that led to the destruction of people’s lives. This is still going on today. We’ve been getting e-mails from people asking when are you going to revisit this issue. A number of people are saying ‘I just discovered this’ (the old series).

TL: Is the web a good medium for this sort of reporting?

DB: Yes and no. Yes for gathering information. Not necessarily for replacing the function served by newspapers. You need to walk people through a complex issue so they understand it. There’s no walking through on the web. You lose them. It’s a great research tool, but as a communications tool, it leaves much to be desired on serious issues. It’s great for gathering information but someone has to put it together and explain what it means.

TL: Is that being done?

DB: Everybody is trying, but you can’t deal with all serious issues in a sound bite. There are longer pieces but readers are in and out. They don’t seem to be absorbing it.

TL: But in some ways the web does let us connect with people.

DB: The clicks don’t reflect anything. The page views don’t reflect anything. They can be a nervous tic. But if people take the time to write an e-mail or a letter, they’re hurting, and they’re connecting.

TL: Is the web, then, a superficial way of connecting?

DB: Yes. It’s in keeping with the Facebook mentality. Everybody wants to know where I am today, but that’s different from really connecting with the economic concerns of people. It’s the Paris Hilton-Lindsay Lohan School of Connectivity.

TL: Why are we disconnected from our readers?

DB: It’s difficult to overcome the drum beat of sound bites. There are some great young reporters so it’s not an age thing. What’s missing is a sense of fairness, equality and inequality, right and wrong that journalists traditionally brought to their reporting. Like so many other aspects of American life—business and government come to mind—what’s missing is a moral compass: Is this right or wrong?

TL: Do reporters think about that today?

DB: Not so much. Journalism has become a business. It’s no longer a calling. Everyone’s job seems to be in jeopardy. People are worried about their next paycheck.

TL: Has the specialization in journalism with all the training programs and fellowships backfired? Some think that this has encouraged journalists to write for their sources.

DB: Yes. Today’s journalists often forget the audience earlier generations wrote for - the average person. Now they write for Wall Street or Silicon Valley or Capitol Hill or cable television talking heads. Their questions are framed in economic terms not in moral terms—is this right or wrong. There used to be moral outrage in the newsroom, but now not so much. Where you really see this is in the use of language. Here is where journalists have literally lost their moral compass.

TL: Can you explain this a bit more?

DB: In stories on taxes, reporters often ask whether it’s fair to impose higher tax rates on someone who has worked hard and achieved success. The implication is that someone who doesn’t make much money has not worked hard. Nonetheless, reporters often ask, “Do you really want to raise taxes on someone who is successful?” That usually means those who have made a lot of money.

TL: So we are not framing or asking the right questions?

DB: Yes. We don’t know what we need to know unless we ask the right question. You listen to TV reporters, and they inevitably ask the wrong question so the problem is framed wrong or from a point of view. Americans are not dumb. But journalism is dumbing down the information it delivers. Sometimes it’s political. Sometimes it’s laziness.

TL: Can you give me an example?

DB: The classic example was weapons of mass destruction. The question should have been are there weapons of mass destruction, not where are they. By framing that way, people are misled into believeing the weapons exist. Once that theme was picked up, the media was off and running.

TL: Any other examples?

DB: Take end-of-life care. The question is “can we afford to spend $80,000 for treatment that extends life for two months?” Nobody asks that question. It’s usually framed in terms of rationing or denying care. Or to take another example. There’s a study by one Wall Street firm that shows that corporate taxes are really high. And then you read the fine print and see what income was excluded from taxes. But nobody looks at what taxes corporations actually pay. That’s the question to ask.

TL: How about Social Security?

DB: There were these huge surpluses. Where did the money go? To finance a war? Here’s another. Why are there caps on how much earnings can be taxed for Social Security. (Income over $106,000 is not subject to Social Security payroll taxes.) That’s not asked.

TL: Why?

DB: Because it inevitably leads to an accusation of engaging in class warfare, even though the war was waged long ago and lost.

TL: Are news organizations interested in producing stories that tackle questions like that?

DB: Some are; some are not. It’s important to remember that however bad things may seem today, there is no comparison with the 1950s, when critical reporting on business did not exist.

TL: One time I heard you speak at a meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists and you said “make no mistake about it, we are lying to our readers.” Can you explain what you meant?

DB: This idea of pretending that the market, and by extension our insurance system, works in health care is a flat out lie. We don’t have an insurance problem. We have a health care delivery problem. Health care could be provided through other arrangements - and not necessarily by the government. Yet the entire debate is keyed to guaranteeing insurance, indeed the big issue now is forcing people to buy insurance.

TL: What is going wrong with America now?

DB: For tens of millions of working people, America could become a third world country. The job market is bleak. Pay in most fields is going down—not up. Home ownership is becoming increasingly iffy. There are no more guaranteed pensions. Congress is anxious to slash Social Security. Health care protection is marginal. And the outlook for the next generation is even darker. All this at the same time there is more wealth concentrated in fewer hands than at any time in history, and members of Congress, perhaps even a majority, want the people in the middle and the bottom to pick up the bills for the excesses of the past decade enjoyed by Wall Street.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,