AS NEWSPAPERS aim higher on the income scale for prospective readers, the so-called ``underclass'' drops almost entirely out of sight. Only a truly feisty newspaper will devote much effort these days to a strong series on poverty, and only the feistiest will look seriously at the growing disparity between rich and poor, which in some places and in the view of some observers seems to threaten the very existence of the bedrock middle class, a major source of social stability and economic prosperity.
At a keynote speech at the 1998 annual Institute on the Ethics of Journalism at Washington and Lee University, Maxwell King, retiring editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, provided a pessimistic conclusion tinged with hope for a ``new professionalism'' that would guide journalists back to fundamental responsibilities.
``What does it mean for a democratic society like ours, in which there has been a 25-year trend of the poor growing poorer, the rich growing richer, the divide between the have-more and the have-lesses growing steadily?'' King asked. ``A society in which 45 percent of those filing tax returns in 1993 met the federal government's definition of working poor? A society in which the richest 1 percent of the population owns almost one-third of the nation's resources?
``The United States today has the widest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized nation. How will such a society, already being split along class and capital lines, be affected by a media environment in which the rapidly growing poor segment has little access to relevant information?''
The widening gap between rich and poor is not easily straddled by the daily press, even by newspapers that try to uphold their principles, King said. In spite of efforts to cover the city as well as the suburbs, newspapers find themselves moving with the wealth into suburban coverage.
``The economic pressures inexorably push the newspaper toward more detailed coverage of sectors with the sort of demographics that support the effort,'' he said, adding that most weeklies follow the same pattern as the dailies. Also, TV and radio, the primary sources of news in poor neighborhoods, ``rarely cover any community news whatsoever, other than crime and violence.''
Contrary to its loudly proclaimed interest in defending society's underdogs, American journalism has a tradition of ignoring the poor. In the early years of the Depression, the lack of national relief and reform allowed the press to ignore the real consequences of the stock-market crash of 1929 and instead to publish palliatives from Wall Street, the White House and congressional conservatives. This lapse, said press critic George Seldes, was the press's ``greatest failure in modern times.''
By following the Wall Street line, journalists wound up deceiving the nation in a way that seemed almost deliberate, he wrote. When the stock market crashed after a series of drops called ``technical corrections,'' the daily press, Seldes said, ``instead of furnishing America with sound economic truth, furnished the lies and buncombe of the merchants of securities, which termed an economic debacle a `technical situation,' which called it the shaking out of bullish speculators, which blamed everything on lack of confidence.''
``Meanwhile, the booming industry of advertising kept intimidating the public into more installment buying, kept inculcating the theory of more waste, more prosperity, fostered the idea of living-beyond-income and kept up the `new standard of living' by high-pressure salesmanship. The nation's press was party to this achievement of the advertising profession.''
An excerpt from an article called ``Widening Gap Between Haves and Have-Nots,'' about poverty in America and the responsibilities of the press. It was published in fall 1998 as a Nieman Foundation report - www.nieman.harvard.edu/nieman.html
Michael J. Kirkhorn (firstname.lastname@example.org) directs Gonzaga University's journalism program in Spokane, Wash.
© 2000 Mercury Center.