Jul 10 2009

Sasha Abramsky on ‘Breadline USA’, Jim Naureckas on the future of journalism


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This week on CounterSpin: Some 25 million Americans, nearly 9 percent of the population–rely on food pantries. But with rare exceptions, and despite its devastating impact, big media just don’t seem to find a reportable story in chronic hunger. A new book hopes to make the issue more visible, by actually talking to people. It’s called Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It; we’ll speak with author Sasha Abramsky.

Also on the show: Hard times and decreasing ad revenues have prompted a spate of seminars and discussion about the future of journalism among traditional journalism organizations. But what’s missing from most of these talk fests are hard questions about what exactly we want to save? FAIR’s monthly magazine Extra! devotes its current edition to our take on the future of journalism—we’ll talk to Extra! editor Jim Naureckas.


Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It, by Sasha Abramsky

— FAIR’s special coverage on The Future of Journalism (Extra!, 6/09)


That’s coming up. But first, as usual, we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

In the sixth paragraph of his front-page obituary of Vietnam War-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, which ran on July 7, the New York Times‘ Tim Weiner tried, and failed, to give some idea of the human cost of McNamara’s war. Weiner wrote, “Half a million American soldiers went to war on his watch. More than 16,000 died; 42,000 more would fall in the seven years to come.”

What’s missing, of course, is the number of Vietnamese and other Indochinese who died as a result of the war whose escalation McNamara oversaw; estimates range from 1 million to more than 3 million, but Weiner never gets around to mentioning them. Imagine the leading newspaper of any other country writing about a military official who led an invasion — and talking only about the deaths of the invading troops, ignoring the victims in the country he invaded.

A Washington Post editorial on McNamara, the same day, managed to outdo the Times obit in moral self-absorption. For the Post, neither the aggressors nor their victims were as important as the “agonizing” that the architect of the war went through. As the editorial concludes, “The true McNamara’s War, as it turned out, was longer than Vietnam, and was fought mostly within himself.”

It’s a given that the Washington Post empathizes and identifies with the denizens of official Washington. But how far removed from humanity do you have to be to suggest that the real tragedy of Vietnam was that “Mr. McNamara was never forgiven by many of his bitter enemies from the Vietnam days”?

The folks at Fox News, so quick to denounce dissent as unpatriotic during the George W. Bush era, have now moved to wishing another September 11 upon a country too slow to violence for their taste. Mark Howard of News Corpse (7/1/09) gives us this clip of Beck’s and guest Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s Bin Laden tracking unit, on Beck’s June 30 show:

Michael Scheuer: The only chance we have as a country right now is for Osama bin Laden to deploy and detonate a major weapon in the United States. Because it’s going to take a grassroots, bottom-up pressure, because these politicians prize their office, prize the praise of the media and the Europeans. Only it’s an absurd situation. Again, only Osama can execute an attack which will force Americans to demand that their government protect them effectively, consistently and with as much violence as necessary….

Beck: Which is why I was thinking this weekend if I were him, that would be the last thing I would do right now.

In other words, the best thing for the United States “the only chance we have,” as Scheuer put it would be for thousands of Americans to be killed in their own country by Osama bin Laden. Only then would the U.S. government use violence sufficient for the tastes of Beck, Scheuer and their ilk. It’s hard to imagine something more monstrous than hoping for the deaths of fellow citizens in order to force the government to cause more deaths abroad; it’s also hard to imagine that if someone on the other end of the political spectrum espoused such views they would still have a television show at the end of the day.

On June 29, the day he was installed by Honduran coup leaders as the country’s new interim foreign minister, Enrique Ortez Colindres repeatedly used racist slurs to describe U.S. president Barack Obama.

Using the word “negrito,” a well-recognized and profoundly racist epithet, Ortez called Obama “that negrito who knows nothing about nothing,” and “the negrito who doesn’t know where Tegucigalpa is.” In another case, he told the Honduran newspaper El Tiempo:

“I have negotiated with queers, prostitutes, leftists, blacks, whites. This is my job, I studied for it. I am not racially prejudiced. I like the little black sugar plantation worker who is president of the United States.”

The slurs were a big story in Latin American and around the world: the Chinese and French wire services Xinhua and Agence France-Presse covered them. But besides online sites like the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post, the story was mostly ignored by U.S. journalists.

That not how it was when Hugo Chávez called George Bush “the Devil” in an address at the UN in 2006. Then, the arguably lesser slight, was discussed for days in the U.S. media.

Even after a U.S. diplomat in Honduras complained about the slurs, and Ortez issued an apology on July 8, U.S. journalists took little notice. The New York Times never mentioned the story at all and the Washington Post ran a brief 120-word Associated Press report about the apology; it’s readers only then learning about the original slights.

As we tape this show on July 9, it is being reported that Ortez is being replaced as Honduras’ interim foreign minister over the slurs. We’ll be interested to see if this will get U.S. journalists to recognize that it’s a story when a high-ranking foreign official launches a racist attack on the U.S. president.

NPR ombud Alicia Shepard wrote an online column in late June defending the radio network’s refusal to use the word “torture” to describe the treatment of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration. Saying she recognized that it’s “frustrating for some listeners to have NPR not use the word torture to describe certain practices that seem barbaric,” Shepard offered a series of justifications. The trouble is, as Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald made clear in a response, they didn’t make much sense. For example, after citing Ted Koppel’s statement that the U.S., including reporters, should call torture anything that they would give that name were it done by another country to an American, Shepard claims that while that’s clear enough, “the problem is that the word torture is loaded with political and social implications for several reasons, including the fact that torture is illegal under U.S. law and international treaties the United States has signed.”

Well, if the idea that because torture is illegal, we can’t call anything that is not persuasive to you, you probably won’t be convinced by Shepard’s other reasons, which include the fact that “both presidents Bush and Obama have insisted that the U.S. does not use torture” and that “not all interrogation techniques could be classified as torture,” a claim which no one has made.

Though she’s received numerous dissenting emails, Shepard doesn’t seem to want to defend the hard-to-fathom policy outside of NPR. She refused Greenwald’s invitation to discuss the issue on Salon Radio, saying she didn’t want to “get into a shouting match”.

And finally: Got $25,000? Well then you may get an invite to an “intimate and exclusive” salon at the home of Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth. Politico broke the story on July 2 of a flyer, inviting folks who could pony up 25 grand to a dinner at which, it was promised, key Obama administration figures and congressional leaders would be in attendance, as well as the Post‘s own healthcare reporting and editorial staff members.

The flyer was explicit about what clients would be buying, pointing out that “an evening with the right people can alter the debate.” For the low, low price of 25 thousand, clients would get “an exclusive opportunity to participate in the healthcare reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done.”

Confronted, the Post was apologetic not so much about the whole influence-peddling thing, but just about the flyer, which a spokesperson told Politico was released “before it was properly vetted,” and “does not represent what the company’s vision for these dinners are, which is meant to be an independent, policy-oriented event for newsmakers.” Independent events… at Weymouth’s home… where lobbying and trade organizations would be charged to attend.


CounterSpin: In a new book, our next guest listens to people who are generally silent in the corporate press some of the tens of millions of people in this country who are hungry. In Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It, Sasha Abramsky addresses an issue many people, in and out of the media, would rather ignore “a vast amount of chronic hunger, the sort that leaves a person alive but lethargic, able to work but prone to sickness, depression and rage.” But while the situation may be reminiscent in some ways of the 1930s, Abramsky says, the present era seems to lack the chroniclers – the James Agee’s and Dorothea Lange’s – to cast a cultural spotlight on the story, leaving it largely behind closed doors. Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and author of a number of other books, including the forthcoming Inside Obama’s Brain due out in December from Penguin Portfolio. He joins us now in studio. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sasha Abramsky!

Sasha Abramsky: Thanks for having me on.

CS: A couple of years ago I said something in passing about hunger in America on a radio show in Texas and a caller called in and said, “I’m a social worker and a progressive, and I just have to tell you that you’re wrong; there are no people going to bed hungry in this country.” The fact that one might have to argue not the extent but the existence of hunger in the U.S.;is that part of what the hidden in your title is getting at?

SA: Absolutely. About four or five years ago I started going ’round the country, and it was during a period when the economy on the surface was doing quite well. It was growing each year, productivity was up, profits were up, unemployment was low, and even though it seems a million years ago, we had a stock market that was soaring and a housing market that was thriving. And I’d go to these small towns, and I’d talk to people about their daily lives, and time and again, I’d find these people who had jobs -they weren’t unemployed, they weren’t long-term homeless—they had jobs, they had homes, and they would tell me, “We can’t make ends meet,” that “Come the end of each pay cycle – two, three, four days before the end of that month, we’ve run of money, and we’ve run out of food.” And I’d say,” You mean you don’t have very much food,” and they’d say, “No we literally have no money, our cupboards are bare.” And I’d say, “What do you do?” They’d say, “Well, eventually, if we can’t borrow from family or friends, we go to the food pantries or we go to the churches.” And I started going to these pantries and talking to people. And the more I talked to people, the more I realized that there was an extraordinary story developing, that as inequality in America was getting more and more pronounced, and as the people at the bottom of the economy were really finding it harder and harder to juggle, to just stay afloat, not to get ahead, but to just say afloat in the Bush-era economy, one of the side effects was that an increasing number of people – many many millions of people – were having to make choices between buying let’s say medicines for their kids if their kids got sick and buying food, paying for rent, buying food, putting gas in the car to drive to work, buying food. And time and again, the thing that gave in that equation was food. So when you then bring it back and you try and talk to people, they say “Well, hunger doesn’t exist in America, we’re a wealthy nation.” And I think it’s invisible because the story is so extraordinary in a sense, that it runs to counter to our narrative, our narrative of a country of plenty of pull yourself up by the bootstraps mentality – it’s so counter to our sense of who we are as a country, that people don’t want to see it. And so when your social worker said “Well that doesn’t exist,” I think that’s a very common response. People recognize there are problems but they don’t recognize that many millions of Americans actually have to make very very nasty decisions about feeding themselves and feeding their families.

CS: Well, I want to draw you out on one of those kinds of sets of decisions because they’re definitely, as you read the book, there are definitely some issues that loom large as you looked into the lives and the forces effecting people who are hungry, and one of the first ones was the price of fuel – of gas. We all remember the spike in gas prices; the news had stories of people cutting back on their summer vacations, perhaps, but it meant so much more to some of the people that you met. Can you talk a little on that?

SA: That’s right. After Hurricane Katrina, about four years ago, I started getting very interested in what was happening in the energy markets because one of the side effects of Hurricane Katrina was that the oil markets in particular got extremely volatile, and we started seeing these very very quick surges in price. So I went up to a place called Siskiyou County. It’s very remote area, a very very poor area of Northern California, none of the glamor and glitz or San Francisco or of the coastal areas. It’s a really gritty timber area, and I started talking to people, and there were areas where a good job came with maybe nine or ten dollars an hour and a few benefits, and most jobs were seven or eight dollars an hour and no benefits. And everybody without exception drives in those communities because there is almost no public transport, and they’re driving big pickups because they’re in an area where there’s snow and there’s rugged terrain. They can’t drive small, fuel-efficient vehicles. So these guys are bringing home maybe three, four hundred dollars a week, and as oil prices go up, they were literally ending up spending 50, 60 dollars a week on gas. And I talked to these people and they say “Well, what’s happening is we have to put fuel in the car otherwise we’re unemployed, but what that means is we can’t afford breakfast, so we go to work hungry.” And then, three years later when the entire economy began to collapse, I thought “Well, you know what’s happening in Siskiyou County” because when I first went up gas was $2.50 a gallon and it was crucifying these people. By the summer of last year, gas was $4.50 a gallon, and their pay hadn’t gone up. So I went up there again, and I talked to people again, and what I found was in town after town up there, employed adults – people who had jobs – were standing on lines at the churches and food pantries every single weekend. And some of the pantries weren’t just giving out bread and canned foods, they were giving out vegetable oil. And I said, you know, “Why are you giving out oil?” They were giving out small little bottle oil, and they said, “Well, unless we give out the oil, the food’s useless because the people we’re dealing with are now so poor that they can’t even afford cooking oil for the food.” And I thought that’s absolutely extraordinary, there’s something breaking down so profoundly at the bottom of the economy, and that’s the story that I tell in this book.

CS: Well, the major media, and we’ve heard them over the years, offer a number of reasons that they don’t do more regular coverage on poverty, on hunger, or news from the perspective of struggling people. It’s downbeat, it’s not new, viewers say they don’t like it… I wonder, finally, here in this book, you’ve approached hunger as a reportable story, with human sources and data that you can look into; why do you think we don’t we see more of that?

SA: I think it’s a difficult story to cover and one of the things we’ve found in the last few years is the media’s cut back on the number of beats that they offer their reporters so what we’re seeing is reporters who 30 or 40 years ago would have spent years specializing in labor or specializing in union issues, or specializing in just everyday issues affecting ordinary, working class Americans – those reporters don’t have the expertise anymore. So what newspapers are doing, they’re basically sending business reporters to cover poverty stories, and business reporters have their own set of skills, but the skills they don’t necessarily have are skills how to dig up stories of poverty – where to go to find a story of hardship, how to humanize that story. And so you see in the New York Times, for example, they did a series of stories about people cutting back in the wake of economic collapse. I remember reading one, and it was about a woman who could no longer afford to buy the same number of designer jeans she used to buy. I thought you know, that might be an interesting human interest story but it really isn’t the story of poverty. The story of poverty is someone who’s literally tightening their belt because they’re starting to skip meals or they’ve gone from having meat once or twice a week to having macaroni, which is the stories I was coming up with. And I think the other thing is that often times reporters haven’t experienced the things that they’re writing about. So one of the things that I did in my book, I decided you know I can intellectualize this all I like, but I really gotta live it. So for eight weeks while I was reporting it, I put myself onto the budget of a median-income McDonald’s worker. Now, that was way above the poverty line. It was – $8.23 an hour was the median income – but in that situation you find that people just can’t afford their bills, that they don’t have enough security, they don’t have enough of a financial cushion to make ends meet. So I played that out, and I did all these permutations – what happens if my credit is tightened when I’m on that budget. What happens if I have unexpected costs, I have a medical bill, gas prices go up? What happens if my employer says you know, “What, you had 40 hours last week, I can only give you 30 hours this week?” And I did that for eight weeks, and I lived within that budget, and I recorded in the book how that affected my ability to buy food, and how it affected my mood, my health and so on. And I think that that kind of thing is an important part of journalism, that you really have to immerse yourself in stories of poverty to really get at the heart of what’s happening. So that’s my take on why the media sort of hasn’t done a hugely good job on this one.

CS: Of course, historically media have played a role in pushing for change. Do you think that they can do that again?

SA: Yeah, I mean there’s this wonderful, honorable history of the muckraking journalist in America – you mentioned James Agee and the photographs of Dorothea Lange. You can go back to Upton Sinclair and his expose of what happened in the meat packing industry. You can go back to some of the 19th century journalists who took on first slavery and then the conditions post-slavery, who took on urban slums, who took on some of the machine politics that was going on at the time. There’s this huge tradition of that in this country. We have it still, we have people in many different areas writing these great investigative exposés – what we don’t have is a broader journalistic culture that absorbs those things. So in a sense the journalists who are working on those issues, they’re sort of on the margins, they’re on the edge, and our journalism as a whole is still more concerned with celebrity, more concerned with gossip, more concerned with glitz and glamor – and that has a place, but for me at least, that’s not the most satisfying or morally persuasive form of journalism.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Sasha Abramsky. The book is Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It, out now from PoliPointPress. Look for his forthcoming title, Inside Obama’s Brain, that’s due out in December from Penguin Portfolio. Sasha Abramsky, thanks very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

SA: Thanks for having me on.


CounterSpin: Tough economic times and the chronic loss of readers and audiences to the internet have led to diminishing advertising revenues for media companies, which have in turn led to uncounted journalism seminars about the future of journalism. These discussion usually focus on whether and how traditional media can be saved, and how media companies can make money from the Internet. In other words, the conversation is more about improving the form and profitability than about improving the content. Thus, a lot is left unsaid.

To talk some of that, we’re joined by Jim Naureckas, the editor of FAIR’s magazine Extra!. Extra!‘s latest issue is a special edition on the Future of Journalism.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jim Naureckas!

Jim Naureckas: It’s always good to be here.

CS: Well, obviously, you assigned and edited this special edition because you thought Extra! had something important to add to the many discussions about where journalism is going. What are some of the fundamental questions that you think go unasked in some of the corporate media discussions of the future of journalism?

JN: Well, I think that what’s wrong with a lot of the discussions about the future of journalism is that they don’t look back to see where journalism has been. If you take a step back and look how well journalism has served the public and served democracy, you really have to say that it’s not doing very well. The future of journalism has to be looked at in the context of present-day journalism that is really letting us down. So we have to think, not how can we preserve journalism as it is, but how can we create a system that works better?

CS: So, the question’s never asked whether this journalism as it is, is worth saving?

JN: And that does relate to the way it’s set up. We have a system where journalism is going to pay for itself by selling advertising to corporations and it’s going to be sustained on a for-profit model. You know, people will keep doing journalism because they’re making a profit at it. And it’s looking like the profits of journalism, while they’re still quite high, they’re not as high as they used to be, and that’s causing a lot of perplexity in the boardrooms of media conglomerates.

CS: The special edition of Extra! on the future of journalism has a piece in there by Candice O’Grady about who pays. Why is it important who pays, and how will that play out in the future of journalism as you see it?

JN: Well, there is a lot of talk about citizen journalism, which is essentially volunteer journalism, and I think that will play an important role in the future, where people who are writing because they want to be heard, and not because they’re making a salary, are helping to keep us as a society informed. But we also think that you’re always going to need full-time, paid journalists because investigating the complex stories of advanced society really is a full-time job. It’s not something that you can do in your spare time, and so how do you pay for that? And you know, traditionally the answer has been through the money that you get from advertising. We’ve always felt at FAIR that you would have a much healthier media culture if you had a more diverse set of funding streams – if you had a public funding stream that was really insulated from official pressure, which we don’t have now; if you had nonprofits really taking seriously the importance of generating information for democracy. And I think that you will always have a for-profit sector – it will probably be smaller than it is now, and I don’t think media will ever generate the profits that it used to generate in the past. And that’s a good thing. The reason that media corporations were able to make so much profit from selling news is because the news system really had problems. It was hard for people to get into it. They had this kind of monopoly on the information that we really depend on for carrying on our politics and our culture. Because they had a monopoly, they were able to make huge amounts of profits. That fact that that monopoly has the potential to be broken up, that’s a good thing. It’s a bad thing for corporate profits, but it’s a good thing for society.

CS: Well, in any discussion of the future of journalism the role of new technology looms large, and one interesting story raised in Extra! is how Google, a tech savvy internet media concern, is viewed by many traditional media outlets as the enemy. Can you get into that a little?

JN: Yeah, when you see discussions about the future of journalism from corporate journalists themselves, they often point at Google as the villain – that Google is stealing the money that rightfully belongs to corporations because Google is linking to their websites, directing traffic to their websites – but the pages that have the links sell ads and those ads are making more money than the media websites themselves. Journalists ought to understand that the information middle man plays an important role – the journalist who doesn’t do any remarkable thing themselves other than tell you what happened is performing a service, and the person who points out where you can find that kind of information is also performing a service. And economically Google is performing a more valuable service right now than most newspaper are. That’s why they’re making more money off of what they’re doing than the newspapers are. This seems like, really perverse to most journalists and they come up with strange solutions involving making it illegal to link to people…you see that these people do not understand how the modern information system works, and they have proposals to deal with it that really would cause the entire system to break down.

CS: Well, after putting together this special edition of Extra! on the Future of Journalism, is there anything we can look forward to in the future?

JN: Well, I do think that while obviously the prospect of the current system coming apart is painful for people who have built their livelihoods working for these for-profit companies. That’s painful, and I think there will be instances where we miss out on news that we could really use because people are losing their jobs. But I also think that there is a prospect of a more inclusive and more democratic media system that will incorporate not only some of these people who have been working at corporate outlets and have not really been able to report what they know to be going on because of the constraints of the system that they operate under, but would also incorporate more of the general public who will be able to maybe report just a bit of what they see going on and have that contribute to a greater whole – and have the ability to talk back and interact with the news through various news technologies.

CS: So it might not be as profitable, there might be more outlets, there might be more independence that comes with that, too.

JN: I think that’s a real possibility.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Jim Naureckas, editor of FAIR’s magazine Extra!.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin Jim Naureckas!

JN: Thanks for having me on.