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Media Just Can’t Stop Presenting Horrifying Stories as ‘Uplifting’ Perseverance Porn

Out-of-touch corporate media give us supposedly charming, wholesome and positive news that actually, upon even minimal retrospection, reveals the dire conditions of late capitalism so many Americans now live under.

A handful of examples.

“THIS IS AWESOME!” That’s how Fox 5 DC described its story (5/28/19) about Logan Moore of Cedartown, GA, a disabled two-year-old whose parents were unable to afford to buy him a walker, so employees at Home Depot fashioned one together themselves for him.

“No… it’s not awesome at all. It’s a painful indictment of the state of healthcare in America,” reads the first comment under this tweet by Fox 5 DC (5/28/19).The story closely resembles another recent CNN report (4/1/19): “A Two-Year-Old Couldn’t Walk on His Own. So a High School Robotics Team Built Him a Customized Toy Car.” That piece noted how Minnesotan toddler Cillian Jackson couldn’t walk due to a genetic condition, and how his parents couldn’t afford treatment. It described the ingenuity of the school children who built him a car, and Cillian’s new found freedom, but did not explore why a baby with a disability had been abandoned by US society.

The clear implication in these stories was that those children would have been left permanently unable to move if not for the help of underpaid employees or the kindness of other children. How many disabled American children with poor parents were not so lucky? The articles did not ask. Instead, they were presented as “uplifting” human interest pieces.

Cillian’s story is part of CNN’s Good Stuff series, which asks its readers:

Want more inspiring, positive news? Sign up for The Good Stuff, a newsletter for the good in life. It will brighten your inbox every Saturday morning.

Unfortunately, these stories are part of a popular trend of unintentionally horrifying “uplifting” news, which we at FAIR have catalogued before (FAIR.org, 8/3/17; 3/25/19), where out-of-touch corporate media give us supposedly charming, wholesome and positive news that actually, upon even minimal retrospection, reveals the dire conditions of late capitalism so many Americans now live under, and makes you feel worse after reading it.

A lot of these stories involve mothers and the extremely difficult circumstances of raising children in the US while poor. CNN’s “feel good” story (8/24/18) about a teacher sitting in a car with her student’s baby so the new mom could attend a job fair raised far more questions than it asked (which was zero). Why is there so little public childcare in the US? Should a new mother really need to immediately find a job so badly? Is this good for infants’ development?

Donated maternity leave is a “trendy” gift you don’t need—unless you live in the United States or Papua New Guinea (Good Morning America, 7/17/18).On a similar subject, Good Morning America (7/17/18) describes the “trendy” new baby-shower gift of donating your pregnant co-worker your days off to give her maternity leave. Every country in the world except the US and Papua New Guinea guarantees paid maternity leave, meaning the trend is unlikely to catch on abroad.

Many outlets (CBS, 5/20/16; Huffington Post, 8/6/16; People, 4/11/16) cheerfully reported on how one man did at least 15 years of backbreaking labor as a night shift janitor at Boston College so his children could attend for free. But none even mentioned that if he lived in nearly any country in Western Europe, this wouldn’t have been necessary, as university there is free or virtually free to attend.

In fact, rather than discussing ballooning tuition costs, Yahoo! (11/15/17) used the story to take jabs at disloyal millennials:

Millennials move from job to job in order to climb the ladder…. For baby boomers and other generations…loyalty and dedication to a single company or career drove, and still drives, much of their working lives.

Any of these stories could have been used to explore the pressing social and economic realities of being poor in the United States, and having to work for things considered fundamental rights in other countries. But instead they are presented as uplifting features, something only possible if we unquestionably accept the political and economic system.

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Many of what Think Progress (8/2/18) labels “feel-good feel-bad stories” involve children doing things they wouldn’t have to in any reasonable society. CBS invites us to enjoy an account of a boy selling his Xbox computer to help his (single) mom (4/2/19), and another repairing his town’s ravaged roads himself (4/12/19). The Hill (6/10/19), meanwhile, describes a nine-year-old saving his pocket money to pay off his school friends’ “lunch debts.”

“Hardships were never an excuse for Moseley,” CNN (5/22/19) reports—as they are, implicitly, for homeless teens who aren’t offered millions in scholarships.NBC (5/22/19) likewise shared the story of homeless Tennessee teen Tupac Moseley graduating high school as a valedictorian and earning many college scholarships, something that was widely reported (BBC, 5/22/19; Newsweek, 5/21/19; Business Insider, 5/21/19). NBC matter-of-factly noted that after his father died, Moseley’s family’s home was foreclosed and they were on the streets, accepting this situation without comment. This was still among the most critical of the reports, however, as many did not even describe why a child in the richest society in history became homeless. CNN’s report (5/22/19), for example, did not explain the background circumstances, let alone comment on them, and frames the story with the sentence, “Hardships were never an excuse for Moseley.”

This sentence is telling: To corporate media, even the trauma of losing a parent and being forced onto the streets is merely an excuse, not a cause for poor grades. The implication is that poor housing, a lack of an adequate safety net, underfunded schools and a decimated public education system are simply excuses from bellyaching lazy people as to why they did not attend the private Boston University (at over $54,000 per year tuition), like the article’s author did.

“No excuses” is a common phrase in “perseverance porn” stories. For example, Today (2/20/17) used it in the headline of a story about a Texas man who is forced to walk 15 miles to work every day. It reveals the ultimate bootstrap ideology of the media, where societal factors are irrelevant and everyone is where they are on merit.

Thus Moseley’s story is effectively weaponized by CNN against anyone who would question the system. Terrible work conditions? No excuses! Homeless? Stop complaining!

In case you thought homeless children were something of an aberration in America, CNN (7/2/19) also recently ran a story about how over 100 homeless children graduated high school in New York City this year alone—again without comment on what this says about US society.

Another reprehensible story treated as heroic by media was that of a Michigan mother who had to quit her job to look after her terminally ill son, who died of leukemia. She could not afford a headstone, so his best friend, 12-year-old Kaleb Klakulak, worked many jobs to attempt to pay for one. Many media outlets (e.g., Associated Press, 12/8/18; Fox News, 12/9/18; NBC Chicago, 12/12/18) celebrated Kaleb’s spirit, but none asked why children are  performing hard, outdoor labor through a Michigan winter so other children can have adequate burials. Such reporting implicitly normalizes this situation, and the system that allows it to happen.

“Sweet” Stories

Such stories (CBS, 5/29/18) rarely if ever ask why a baby with a life-threatening illness is forced to rely on his nine-year-old brother’s selling lemonade to pay for treatment.A common media trope is presenting kids selling lemonade as cute,  sweet stories, no matter how horrifying or depressing the reason, including to pay off school lunch debts (Yahoo! News, 5/21/19; MSN, 5/22/19), or to raise money for their baby brother’s medical treatment (New York Post, 5/28/18; CBS, 5/29/18) or their mother’s chemotherapy (KTSM El Paso, 8/4/18).

Or how about the story of a New Mexico girl selling lemonade trying to fund her mother’s kidney transplant? People magazine (5/9/18) applauded her resolve, and local radio described it as “heartwarming” that she had raised over $1,000. The massive problem is a kidney transplant in America can cost over $400,000. To anyone with a heart, what this story actually represents is the desperate struggle of a child trying in vain to save her dying mother. Worse still is the fact that if she lived in Sweden, Spain or Saskatchewan, she would be given a kidney free of charge and without question.

Any of the numerous other outlets (ABC, 4/30/18; Good Morning America, 5/1/18; Albuquerque Journal, 4/30/18) that picked it up could have used the story to discuss the dysfunctional healthcare system that is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the country, while producing some of the worst health outcomes in the developed world, or to scrutinize how corporate healthcare gouges the sickest and most vulnerable Americans, including children. Surely the most basic function of government should be to prevent its citizens from needlessly dying? Not if you wholly accept the tenets of neoliberalism, where education, housing and healthcare are not basic, inalienable human rights, but commodities to be bought and sold and bargained for on the market.

To be clear, while we can admire the never-say-die attitude of those in tough conditions, this is no substitute for guaranteed public programs to help those in dire need. The problem with perseverance porn is not the brave subjects of the articles, but the lack of any journalistic scrutiny examining the failings of society that placed them in such desperate circumstances to begin with.

What these articles highlight so clearly is not only the grim, inhuman and unnecessary conditions so many Americans are forced to live under, but the degree to which mainstream corporate journalists have completely internalized them as unremarkable, inevitable facts of life, rather than the consequences of decades of neoliberal policies that have robbed Americans of dignity and basic human rights. Because corporate media wholly accept and promote neoliberal, free-market doctrine, they are unable to see how what they see as “awesome” is actually a manifestation of late-capitalist dystopia.

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Alan MacLeod

Alan MacLeod

Alan MacLeod is a member of the Glasgow University Media Group. His latest book is, "Bad News From Venezuela: 20 Years of Fake News and Misreporting." Follow him on Twitter: @AlanRMacLeod

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