Nov 3 2011

NewsHour Responds on Inequality

'Who would disagree' with fake Lincoln quote?

After FAIR’s recent action alert (10/27/11) concerning the PBS NewsHour‘s reports minimizing–and even celebrating–economic inequality, NewsHour correspondent Paul Solman posted a long response on the PBS website (10/31/11) that attempted to answer the criticism.

Solman began by expressing his appreciation for the “avalanche” of feedback, “hostile though most of it has been.” He admits that guest Richard Epstein (10/26/11)–who made the case in favor of inequality–was incorrect to attribute this quote to Abraham Lincoln: “You do not make the poor rich by making the rich poor.”

But then Solman writes that the sentiment behind it is beyond dispute:

But when I reread the quote, who would disagree with it? Who thinks you help the poor by destroying the rich? (Boetcker and Reagan’s version.) Or make the poor rich by making the rich poor? (Epstein’s.) Maybe Stalin, or Steve the Talking Parrot, but I’m sure Lincoln didn’t believe this, even if he never said it. And neither do the most passionate champions of greater economic equality in America.

Epstein, of course, wasn’t citing Lincoln because he thought people were literally proposing to put the homeless in mansions and billionaires on Skid Row; rather, he was using a revered president as a spurious authority for his argument that you can’t help the poor by taxing the wealthy. And, according to a recent New York Times poll (10/26/11), vast majorities of the public do support raising taxes on the wealthy and the redistribution of wealth. It’s not likely that they’re all Stalinists or parrots.

The NewsHour attached a note to the online transcript of Epstein’s interview noting that he incorrectly attributed the quote to Lincoln, but the show has not set the record straight for its viewers. It’s worth noting that Epstein’s Lincoln is quite at odds with the real thing, who told Congress–12/3/1861–“Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration,” and complained (c. 12/1/1847) that “in all ages of the world…some have labored, and others have without labor enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue.”

Solman goes on to recall other reports he has produced for the NewsHour over the years, including one from 1992 that tracked the decline of middle-class wages via the Bunker family from the TV show All in the Family. In trying to understand the “wrath” of the email responses, he writes:

People are reacting to what they’ve just seen and heard–Lerman or Epstein–not contextualizing those interviews in terms of dramatically dissimilar stories about Archie and Edith Bunker from a generation–or even a few weeks–before.

It’s true that most people cannot recall a segment from the PBS newscast from 1992. They do recall what they just saw, and might recall the segment before it (9/21/11)–where guest Bob Lerman attempted to argue that inequality isn’t as bad as it seems because seniors get Medicare benefits (FAIR Blog, 9/26/11).

Solman is on solider ground when he suggests that

what I take to be significant is the sense of outrage–that economic inequality can by this point be in any way minimized or justified by anyone. If there’s a driving theme to the “Occupy” movement, as we suggested in our coverage of the New York branch, it’s the inequality divide.

That seems more likely. And since Solman mentions Occupy Wall Street, it is worth mentioning–as the PBS ombudsman Michael Getler observed (10/4/11)–that the NewsHour was mostly uninterested in these protests when they started.

Given that two of the program’s most recent reports on inequality are devoted to minimizing inequality, it is not surprising that NewsHour viewers would be alarmed by this shift in focus. Asking viewers to give the show credit for a segment from 20 years back misses the point.

Thanks to all the activists who participated in the avalanche.