Spotlight Exclusives

Q&A: E.J. Dionne Jr. Discusses Media Coverage of Poverty

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E.JDionne. Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post who frequentlywrites about poverty, politics, religion and the role of media. He is also asenior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at GeorgetownUniversity۪s Public Policy Institute.

Dionne hasreceived numerous awards, including the American Political ScienceAssociation۪s Carey McWilliams Award honoring a major journalistic contributionto the understanding of politics. He is also the best-selling author of”Why Americans Hate Politics” (1991),“They Only LookDead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era” (1996), and “Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and thePolitics of Revenge” (2004).

In October2007, Dionne moderated a panel on poverty in America and its relevance to thepresidential campaigns at the launch of Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. Recently, Dionne sat down with Spotlightto discuss the obstacles to media coverage of povertyand the role the media can play in drawing greater attention to problems ofeconomic hardship and lack of opportunity in our society.


Spotlight: Giventhe current financial crisis on Wall Street and the likelihood of continuingproblems with the economy, what role should the media play in making sure theproblems of those at the bottom are not forgotten?

Dionne: I thinkthere۪s a tendency, with the exception of a few quite wonderful reporters andwriters, not to focus on the people who are at the bottom of the heap until themoment when they are perceived as causing trouble for the rest of society. … That۪sa general problem — that success is not usually news, and that society as awhole is more fascinated by the rich, the powerful, the famous, the celebritythan by the struggles of poor people.

There have been points in our history when certain people inthe media, or writers outside the media, have broken through to bring povertyto popular attention. Michael Harrington۪s “The Other America” is a notablemoment. “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by Walker Evans and James Agee wasanother one that had an impact. Certain documentaries “Hunger in America”that CBS did was a really powerful document that really changed our policies towardhunger and the poor. And there are certain writers: I admire Bob Herbert at theNew York Times very much forconstantly asking us to pay attention to these issues. I think the nature ofour leadership at a given moment can also call our attention to it.[Presidents] Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy called upon the media andeverybody else to pay attention to these problems. So perhaps with somecombination of a few strong voices in the media and some political leadership,it can bring us back to a focus on the poorest among us.

Spotlight: Whatdo you think is the feeling in a typical newsroom today about covering poverty?Dionne: Thebiggest problem in many newsrooms is the lack of human beings working for thenewspaper and the lack of space to print their work in. There۪s real crisis inthe media right now….great newspapers that have had financial troubles thathave had to cut back. So I think that you start with that larger problem. And then I think that we have tended not to focus on povertyas an issue, but on particular social problems as issues. So we do write some,particularly about the education system and what happens to poor kids in theeducation system. We write some about health care and the people left out ofthe health care system. We write some about social breakdown and crime in someof our poorest neighborhoods. But I think that in recent years, this has notbeen a matter of huge concern…..I think in some ways the people who really disappear are thelow-wage workers, because they don۪t cause what others would see as obvioussocial problems; they۪re doing all the right things. And so people۪s attentionis not called to them, and yet low-wage workers have a very difficult time ofit right now. My friend Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical writer, likesto talk about “Burger King Mom.” He says we۪ve talked a lot about Soccer Mom, (but)what about Burger King Mom? This idea came to him when he went into a BurgerKing and saw a woman who was waiting on him, and her two kids were in a cornerdoing their homework. She had no child care, but she wanted to keep an eye onher kids. She wanted to make sure her kids did the right thing. Clearly this isa woman who had a very low income and we just don۪t think much about BurgerKing Moms.

Spotlight: Whatrole can columnists like you play in bringing the problem of poverty to theforefront of political and public discussion?Dionne: One ofthe great things that I can do as a columnist is to be able to put an issue onsomeone۪s bulletin board, sometimes literally in their kitchen. I wrote a lotabout welfare reform and my worries about it. I۪ve written a lot aboutchildren۪s health care. … I۪ve written some about low-wage workers; I grew upin a factory town so it۪s something I grew up thinking about. So we can, moreeasily than an editor or a beat reporter, go off in this direction whether ornot anyone else is.

And also we can pay attention to things that go on inCongress that are not discussed: When there۪s an attack on the earned incometax credit and I was concerned about the rolling back of that; when there arecuts in programs that work. So many times cuts are justified at the time bysaying this program doesn۪t work, but a lot of times programs that are cut areactually programs that work. … It۪s not a problem with the program itself;it۪s a problem with the will to carry it through or a problem with being ableto build them to scale.

Spotlight:  It seems like the candidates aren۪t talkingabout poverty and related issues. Is this true or is it just that the mediaisn۪t covering it when they do talk about it, because they think no one cares?Dionne: .I thinkin a general election campaign the perception is that there aren۪t that manypoor people among the swing voters and so the issues discussed in the generalelection tend to be issues of prime concern to swing voters. And I think thesense of all sorts of candidates is that poverty is not at the top of thatlist. .The Democratic Party, which has a larger constituency of poorpeople, tends to talk about (poverty) more during the primaries. (Sen.) JohnEdwards has had some problems recently but I think he deserves credit forpushing a discussion about poverty during the Democratic primaries. And I thinkthe result was that (Sens.) Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did talk quite abit about poverty in the primaries. I remember there was one day I wrote acolumn about it when Obama and Edwards gave speeches at the same moment,outlining two rather different approaches to poverty. They weren۪tcontradictory; they were more complementary. But I think that the issue is outthere more this year than it was four years ago.

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