Perrier in the Newsroom

There was a day not far distant, you know, just before World War II, when nearly all of us news people, although perhaps white collar by profession, earned blue-collar salaries. We were part of the "common people." We suffered the same budgetary restraints, the same bureaucratic indignities, waited in the same lines, suffered the same bad service. We could identify with the average man because we were him.

- Walter Cronkite

Speaking to students at Rutgers University in 1993, President Clinton unveiled his plan to offer all Americans up to $10,000 a year in college loans. The students, many struggling with rising tuition bills, roared with approval. The press contingent shrugged. As Steven Waldman recounts in his recent book The Bill, one reporter muttered, "Ten thousand dollars? What's that gonna buy you?" Quipped another, "Yeah, I mean it costs four thousand to send your kid to nursery school." The networks barely covered the speech, and the next day most of the major dailies buried it inside.

For at least a generation conservative politicians have accused the Washington press corps of being part of the liberal elite. The accusation is half right. Better educated and better paid than at any time in history, reporters and editors at America's major news institutions are members of the privileged class. Gone are the familiar blue-collar trappings of newspapering, and with them have frayed the bonds between reporters and working-class readers. Once the common man's watchdog over the establishment, the national media has become part of it.

But while Newt Gingrich has been the one registering this complaint lately, liberals have more reason to worry. If Washington's elite tend to champion most liberal cultural causes, their financial self-interest often translates into a conspicuous sympathy for conservative doctrines on economics and government activism. As long as this sensibility defines the boundaries of political debate in the media, liberals will struggle in their attempt to promote an agenda of expanding economic opportunity for the working class just as they did during the first two years of the Clinton administration.

As recently as 25 years ago, journalism was still a predominantly blue-collar occupation, at least in spirit. Although college graduates were in the business as early as the turn of the century, not until the 1970s did they account for the majority. Even among those who had college degrees in generations past, there was still a high proportion of social misfits and underachievers kids who were smart and made it to college, but couldn't quite cut it in a "real" profession like law or medicine. Describing his colleagues at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1950s, former New York Timesman David Halberstam wrote in a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review:

There was nothing about us, in our past performances, in our personal style, in our dress code and our personal grooming that would lead anyone to think we were candidates to be Most Likely to Succeed. . . . The normally ambitious young men of our time there were no women in those days wanted to make as much money as possible with as large a company as possible. We, by contrast, were doing something that not only paid very little in the present, but promised to pay not very much more in the future.

Of course, the modern newsrooms at the Tennessean and other lower circulation dailies are still a far cry from the fitness center at the National Press Club. At many small to mid-size newspapers, one still finds traces of grimier days: Cub reporters still struggle to make $20,000 a year, and they still prefer Bud to Perrier. Even at some of the larger papers, staff rarely make more than $50,000 more than the national average, yes, but middle class by any definition.

The same can't be said of senior staff at the largest dailies, the newsweeklies, and the networks, where salaries can climb past $100,000 and clever journalists parlay their visibility into lucrative speaking and television engagements. As Ken Auletta recently wrote in the New Yorker, celebrity journalists can double or even triple their base salaries solely through paid appearances: ABC News's Cokie Roberts, for example, made more than $300,000 in outside income last year, or nearly ten times what the average American took home, according to Auletta.

A number of Washington media critics, chief among them the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz and the Chicago Tribune's Jim Warren, have hammered away at the honoraria issue for some time, with particular attention to how corporate speaking engagements can create conflicts of interest. Yet while the conflict-of-interest question has sparked some soul- searching within the media community, surprisingly few journalists seem conscious of the more subtle ways that celebrity status and salary inflation have tainted their worldview. Though these folks still consider themselves part of the "working press," they have no more to do with the working man than do the officials they cover. They inevitably live in such places as the Upper West Side or Bethesda, and send their kids to Groton Academy or maybe Sidwell Friends. Legend has it reporters at the Boston Globe cheered when the stock market crashed in 1929; when it crashed in 1987, the story goes, they called their stockbrokers.

Many of today's high-profile reporters also came to Washington via a different route. A generation ago, even the most ambitious and well-educated young scribes cut their teeth on city beats at daily newspapers an experience that could be as much an exercise in class awareness as an apprenticeship in writing. "It didn't matter who you were or what graduate degrees you were loaded with," recalls Pulitzer-winner J. Anthony Lukas of his stint covering cops for the Baltimore Sun. "That's where you started."

Now that routine has changed. Neiman Foundation curator Bill Kovach, a longtime New York Times man whose career began on a small daily in the South, sees too many of today's political correspondents jumping from prestigious clerkships or graduate schools right into Washington beats, many of them bypassing daily journalism altogether. "Guys like Halberstam or [Neil] Sheehan, they started by covering cops or went off as foreign correspondents, covering the war [in Vietnam] and getting to know the working-class kids in the trenches. The key is they had a prior democratic experience, and it changed their whole outlook."


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To make matters worse, the new fast track screens out aspiring scribes who lack independent financial means. The breeding grounds for many Washington reporters, such as the New Republic or the Washington Monthly, now pay their entry-level writers anywhere from $10,000 to $13,000 a year; the same goes for internships at think tanks and other stepping-stone organizations. Though this bout with near-poverty can help breed working-class sympathy, it also has the perverse effect of attracting to the field primarily those people who don't owe college loans but still went to college and those who can get by with occasional cash stipends from Mom or Dad. (As the son of a surgeon who subsisted on such a a salary at The American Prospect for two years, I speak from experience.)

Of course, not everyone who follows this route becomes a mouthpiece for the wealthy; exceptions such as Washington Monthly alumnus Nicholas Lemann, chronicler of poverty and author of The Promised Land, come quickly to mind. But the cumulative effect of these trends has been the creation of an elite class of reporters with a conspicuously upper-middle- class sympathy. Sometimes this instinct manifests itself as a sympathy for liberal causes such as abortion rights, gay rights, and the like. But the same bias also expresses itself as an uncritical faith in conservative doctrines about inflation, trade, taxes, and government spending, and it is these attitudes that most directly shaped the coverage of politics during the first two years of the Clinton administration.

One vivid illustration was the coverage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Whether or not the treaty was in the nation's best interests, it threatened the short-term employment prospects of thousands of American workers. Yet, as Howard Kurtz has argued in the Post, the vast majority of stories on the issue treated projections of job losses as just more abstract studies to be cited as context and then dispelled by experts. When NAFTA was in trouble on Capitol Hill, most political reporters played it as just another case of parochial legislators, beholden to labor unions, looking to cripple a visionary initiative. "Most journalists simply don't know personally anybody whose job might have been threatened by NAFTA," says Kurtz, who has been a lone but persistent critic of elite journalism for years. "Journalists get real upset when a handful of jobs are lost at a newspaper, but when it's factory workers in the Midwest, it's easy to treat it as just another statistic."

The coverage of NAFTA, with its heavy reliance on economists as experts, was indicative of another problem. Elite journalists who are more comfortable in the lecture hall than the precinct house often rely on professorial talking heads. By magnificent coincidence, these authorities often validate the writers' own analytical theories and make it unnecessary for them to bother with the traditional, on-the-ground reporting that might encourage a working-class perspective. News is treated in the abstract; reporters inquire what it means for the system, not for the people.

A more blatant pattern of class bias one that more clearly worked to the Clinton administration's disadvantage emerged in the debates over the 1993 budget. Recall that while the president proposed to raise some $305 billion in taxes, nearly all of it was to come from the very wealthy. For 15 million working Americans he offered a tax break (in the form of an expanded earned income tax credit); the middle class would pay an energy tax costing the average family only $200 a year. The gas tax was eventually reduced to a pittance, yet polls show as many as 70 percent of Americans still think Clinton raised taxes on the middle class.

The New Republic's Michael Kinsley, among others, has suggested that the nation's intellectual and media elite may have been the source of this misconception; after all, many of them were among the 1.2 percent of Americans hit by the income tax hike. That would certainly explain the cover of Newsweek on March 1, 1993. Following the president's budget speech, the editors ran a cover with the words "tax," "spend," and "cut" stacked on top of each other. No problem there, perhaps, except that the word "tax" ran in 286-point type, or about four inches high and extending across the entire page. The word "cut" appeared in 36-point type, which is less than half an inch high and barely an inch wide. Clinton had actually promised spending cuts of $270 billion, and only households making more than $140,000 a year faced increased income tax rates. Is it any wonder millions of Newsweek readers and many others who spotted the cover in bookstores or the supermarket came away with a different impression? The cover may not have represented a deliberate attempt to skew the debate, but it sure sheds some light on the media's class instincts.

The same can be said for the press's obsession with entitlements and the deficit, which helped stymie the administration's early attempts to increase public investment. Serious and respected economists, including former Nixon adviser Herbert Stein, dispute whether our current deficits are too high, but the press has measured every Clinton initiative by its likely impact on the deficit. Even when Clinton has managed to bring down the deficit, reporters have turned to a different litmus test his ability to control Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid while paying scant attention to other deficit-reducing alternatives. "You have a lot of reporters talking about getting entitlements under control," says one correspondent. "You don't hear them talking about getting rid of the home mortgage deduction."

Health care coverage, too, fell prey to this mentality. "I defy you to ask any reporter to name five people he knows who don't have health insurance or even some who might lose it," steams political svengali James Carville. Indeed, it often seemed that the press establishment's primary concern was whether the blue-chip coverage of most reporters might suffer under reform. After a taping of Meet the Press early in the legislative process, NBC correspondents Tim Russert and Lisa Myers were overheard speculating that the Clinton plan would fail. Why, they reportedly asked, would people want to give up choice of doctor? (Myers says she can't recall whether the conversation took place; Russert didn't return phone calls.) The same questions dogged the Clinton plan throughout the health care debate, providing yet more grist for the opponents of reform.

But for a majority of Americans, the Clinton plan would have expanded options. Employers are now shifting their workers into health maintenance organizations and preferred provider plans that limit their choice of doctor, and about half of employees who receive health benefits have no choice of plan. The Clinton proposal, in contrast, would have guaranteed Americans access to a broad slate of plans in their communities, including fee-for-service options that many are now losing entirely. It would have required HMOs to offer partial coverage of specialists outside their own list of doctors (which HMOs do not have to offer today). Myers points to polls that showed most Americans were worried about choice too, and she's right. But it's the media's responsibility to dispel such misconceptions, not to perpetuate them.

Now and again prominent journalists still manage to crash through class barriers; Jason DeParle's recent cover story for the New York Times Magazine on the day-to-day life of a welfare mother was perhaps the most honest treatment of the welfare issue to appear in a national publication in years. But promoting such coverage is difficult because other trends in the media business reinforce the gentrification of news. As newspapers use zoned editions to cultivate affluent suburban readers, the pressure to cater to that audience grows stronger. Omnipresent, too, are the fiscally conservative sentiments of corporate advertisers and media chain moguls.

Yet it is not the publishers but the editors and writers who make most of the daily calls on content and the framing of coverage; the power to right the pro-establishment tilt remains theirs. Most journalists, of course, don't like to think of themselves as anybody's advocate. But that's most likely because advocacy of elite interests comes so easily that it scarcely seems like bias at all. Media executives constantly wonder why so many poor or working-class Americans would rather watch the distortions of trash television than pick up a newspaper. Perhaps it's because many of these people no longer see the front page as true to their experience.

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