[Update, April 15] While we took our opening comment in the Herald-Leader at face value in the piece below, the editor in question, John Carroll, actually intended it as a rueful preface to a serious examination of his paper’s lapses in civil rights coverage. We apologize for the initial lack of context.
“It has come to the editor’s attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.”
Call it the ultimate umbrella apology, issued by the Lexington, KY, paper in 2004 (the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). While it might be tempting to mock the paper for its understatement, it certainly isn’t the only outlet that managed to botch and then apologize for its coverage of race, wealth, and (in)equality. Yes, we in the media can have blind spots—often huge ones—when it comes to social change. To help identify them, we set out to have a national conversation about what we’re missing these days, and how media must adapt to cover an America that constantly reinvents itself.
Race, class, immigration, and social mobility were the issues we used to frame our discussion, conducted in January. Using the online conversation tool Branch, we virtually convened 18 members of the media and asked them to weigh in. (To find out who’s who in this conversation, click here.)
As context, this is both the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. Many people don’t know the March’s full name: “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” We chose to address both economic issues and race/immigration, highlighting the current fault lines in our country and mediaverse. Among them:
We’re in a period of accelerated change in the media industry. Big institutions are sharing audiences with scrappy upstarts and citizen journalists. How do you hold the media accountable when virtually anyone who chooses can have at least a small audience? And are there different standards for big or long-standing institutions versus new or smaller ones?
How do we make sense of race, immigration, and class when all of the issues intersect, but none is identical? What are key social changes we should be examining right now? What is the historical context in which we embed today’s narratives? And how can we plan future coverage?
The 2012 election provides an additional layer of context for these conversations. Three numbers—the 1 percent, the 99 percent, and the 47 percent—were used in different ways to define how income, wealth, and taxation shape our society. The original Occupy Wall Street protests occurred from September through November 2011, but protests in municipalities such as Oakland ran well through the spring, as presidential candidates accelerated their trot through the Swing States. By the time Mitt Romney’s surreptitiously taped remarks about the 47 percent hit airwaves in September 2012, many Americans had heard a garbled debate about wealth that delivered more soundbites than facts. Governor Romney stated, “[T]here are 47 percent who are with [President Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. . . . These are people who pay no income tax.” For the record, two-thirds of the 47 percent work, with most of that subgroup paying payroll taxes. Many are retired. And not all, certainly, are Democrats. In fact, the Tea Party Twittersphere went curiously silent after the 47-percent remarks, perhaps indicating that the normally voluble cohort had little good to say.
If you dig deeper into the 1-percent-and-99-percent paradigm, that too has flaws. It’s not until the 1 percent of the 1 percent (i.e., the .01 percent) that the income graph really shoots up. The average American income is about $51,000. The 1-percent’s average income is $717,000. And the 1-percent-of-the-1-percent’s average income is $27 million. The discrepancies only increase if you compare wealth versus income. The issue also plays out in politics, since the 1-percent-of-the-1-percent are disproportionately represented among major donors. Overall, the divide between rich and poor is growing, social mobility is decreasing, and the average length of unemployment today is twice as long as it was during the last recession.