Media elite talks ‘blue-collar’ journalism. Their approach could make things more dangerous for US

Nieman Lab forum photo
Nieman Lab forum photo

There is nothing inherently wrong with being rich, or educated. As studies have shown forever, these two things are very closely related in the U.S.

The wrongness happens when elites no longer give a crap about people who are struggling. When there’s no safety net, housing, food, education system or health insurance.

In media, the way this happens is talk about people in poverty, instead of talking with them, or better, letting them talk for themselves.

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“I think that journalism needs to rediscover its roots as a blue-collar profession”

— Nieman Lab (@NiemanLab) February 8, 2017
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The dynamic was very much, and very ironically, on display this week.

The tweet above, about a forum at Harvard’s Nieman Lab concerning “post-truth” or “post facts” journalism, says journalism “needs to rediscover its roots as a blue-collar profession.”

In the forum, some very powerful media people come together to chat:

These are the very people that run elite media in the U.S. Let us do what Leonhardt urges others to do: “listen,” and “hear” what they’re saying.

Lipinski, the “curator” — a title that would make more sense in an art gallery — starts off by saying she’s in a “slight panic,” because “it’s hard to be away from the news for two hours.”


NYT’s Leonhardt then begins talking about “disintermediation.”

Disintermediation? WTF? Is that “blue collar” journalism?

“[I]n the long arc of things, progress for both media and the country is still the better bet,” Leonhardt then declares.

This idea: “progress.” So enticing a swan song under our previous, pragmatic President Barack Obama.

Right now, there is a racist, sexist, proto-fascist plutocracy running this country, and the entire “woke” world is up in arms about it.

There is no “long arc.”

The Nieman Lab participants, HuffPost’s Polgreen in particular, do briefly recognize the entrenched socioeconomic divisions in America.

“I think we need to be real about the fact that this country has very serious problems,” Polgreen says. “I don’t actually feel like we’ve done a great job of telling that story in a way that feels true to the people that are actually experiencing it.”

“[I]nequality, the explosion of inequality, has become really one of the most striking economic and political and social phenomena that we’ve seen in American history in at least the last 50 years,” Baker adds.

But none of this is our fault, the media elites say.

“I think we at The Wall Street Journal did focus on a lot of this [inequality] during the campaign,” Baker says. “We wrote a particularly memorable series called The Great Unraveling ….”

“What explains the anger,” Leonhardt says, “is … the reality. … [I]t’s not the way the media is writing about that slump.”

Lipinski then asks, to paraphrase, why mainstream media continue to parrot the Trump Administration’s lies.

Using the word “lie” is, well, just a bit much, Leonhardt protests. “We have to think about how we deal with that,” he says.

“[N]ews stories should be quite conservative about using the word ‘lie,’ because it implies intent,” Leonhardt says. A better way to write is: “Trump promulgates a falsehood …”

“We are all reluctant to use the word lie,” Baker adds. “We may be polite and respectful to [liars in the Trump administration], but we need to not be cravenly deferential towards them.”

Not a lie? “Promulgates a falsehood”? Don’t be “craven”?

The polite exchange is tone-deaf media elitism at its finest.

This kind of bullshit is socialized from an early age, fertilized by expensive power lunches, and represents an intellectualized landscape devoid of the anger, the raw emotion that is, at least for the millions of Americans in the streets these days, defining this moment.

Let’s call a lie a lie, and a liar a liar. Let’s be impolite. Let’s be cravenly disrespectful. What happens if we’re not?

The discussion also suggests that elite media is evolving in ways that make it more cut off from, not connected to, Sly’s “everyday people.”

“We’re sort of skimming off a paying audience around the country and around the world,” NYT’s Leonhardt says.

“There’s a set of media organizations that are not necessarily thriving but I think have a much better chance of surviving, because they cater to the group that’s succeeding,” Polgreen says.

The media elite business model is: we write things for rich people.

So what is blue collar journalism, anyway? I don’t have the answer, but I know it’s not “pay to read” in a nation where millions can’t afford to pay for housing and food.

It’s not nearly as polite about what’s going on as these four characters are.

It is, as Lipinski notes, “our job as journalists to speak truth to power.” But using words like “disintermediation” and “promulgate” instead of calling a spade a spade doesn’t speak to anyone except other elites.

Blue collar journalism is reacting honestly to things — not having to “think about how we deal with” a lie, even from powerful officials, or presidents.

Blue collar is people who work hard and get their hands dirty, doing something that may be complex, but it’s not overly-complicated.

Let me be honest. I’m not yet successful as a writer. I work very hard for very little money, about $1500 a month. Truth be told, I would probably jump at the chance to write for any of these three respected media outlets.

But I can be grateful, because while I’m not poor — hell, my wife and I own a small house in Portland, Oregon, which is a minor miracle these days — I know what it means to struggle. I make more talking and walking and typing for a living than the woman I interviewed yesterday who’s homeless with three kids, working full-time making minimum wage as a cashier, and trying to get her teenager back from juvenile services.

She lost her $1350 per month apartment after her partner left her, she says, after a $500 rent assistance check didn’t get mailed by government workers. After a landlord refused to give her another chance.

Her name is Crystal; I’ll be writing more about her soon. She makes $1400 a month gross. People in housing programs are trying to create situations where people don’t pay more than a third of their (net) income for rent; this woman was probably paying about 110 percent. You can look at her situation a lot of different ways, including seeing her as a hero for not being on meth, like so many who struggle in Portland, and for managing to keep a roof over her kids’ heads for months on a very meagre income.

The point is, “blue collar” journalism is getting out there and talking to the Crystals of the world. Letting her tell at least a little bit of her story.

“I am in it. I was born a fighter,” she says. “That’s not going to change.”

Poor for a Minute is a project that is trying to contribute to and create a real conversation between rich and poor, black and white, English and español. As a social worker, I used to call this “cultural competency,” perhaps because I was proud of my own bilingualism and my helping work.

Then a woman at the University of Portland nursing program, Dr. Kala Meyer, straightened me out: It’s “cultural humility.”

Yes. Without humility, we cannot hope to break down walls and create conversation. As a journalist, cultural humility and “blue collar” journalism mean admitting my own privilege: I’m white, a homeowner, male, hetero, educated. My struggle is not the same as the struggles of people I often interview and write about, whether poor, like Crystal, or rich, like many other sources I end up speaking with. But it’s interrelated.

Blue collar journalism means never getting far away from what is sometimes disparagingly called “street” reporting. For me, it means a story, to be complete, should include the step of actually talking to the people involved, whether that’s a neighbor affected by a new development project, a homeless person living in a tent, a concertgoer.

Not just the developer, or the politician. Not just the social services agency executive director. Not just the artist, or PR person.

Sometimes this can be highly discomfiting. This is the point. I know this, in part, because I’ve spent two decades helping poor people in homeless shelters, housing and child welfare programs and an elementary school.

I also know this because I’m a musician and music critic, and just reviewed Run The Jewels, who could teach Baker, Polgreen, Leonhardt and Lipinski a thing or two.

I appreciate that these media pros, and thousands of other people at their top-level companies, do amazing work sometimes. But the lovely thing about the Interwebs is that we have many, many options, and I’d just as soon get my news from Killer Mike as Leonhardt.

Times have changed, Lipinski notes, moving the conversation to “fake news” and the addition of myriad web-based voices and outlets. “So there’s certainly more noise, and there’s certainly more content,” Lipinski says. “How’d that work out for us?”

Not so great, Leonhardt admits.

“I do think at this moment it’s very difficult to remember that there actually have been positives from this small-d democratization of media,” Leonhardt responds.

Baker notes that journalism has gone from “being a craft to being kind of a profession,” by which he seems to mean wealthy urban atheists who went to Harvard and “who’ve never really seen anyone with a gun.”

“They don’t know what’s going on in much of this country ,” Baker adds. “And that is a problem. Journalists need to go out and do it.”

Sounds real. But then he takes it back: “But,” he says, people are going to “treasure quality,” he says. They will “pay for it.”

“We all need to wake up,” Polgreen says, in another encouraging start that immediately goes to a terrible place, but “it’s not on journalism to fix that.”

“We just need to renew that social compact.”

Social compact? Instead of reading Hobbes or Locke, listening to Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike might be a healthy dose of reality:

Say hello to the masters, on behalf of the classless masses
We showed up, ski masks, picks, and axes to murder asses
Lift up our glasses and watch your palaces burn to ashes
Fucking fascists, who the fuck are you to give fifty lashes?
All ’cause I’m motivated, stimulated, never smoking simulated happy and burning hashes

The Nieman Lab piece leaves us with one last gem from NYT’s Leonhardt:

“That is really what is different about this age: You have your own printing press. And as much as we pretend not to listen to you … we do listen. And just like the politicians we cover, we are affected by the criticism that we hear.”

Really? Based in this conversation, it seems more logical to conclude media elites are “just like the politicians” you cover.