BROOKE GLADSTONE: If our broad sheets seem geared more and more toward an affluent readership and maybe because their reporters and editors resemble their readership, a relatively well heeled demographic much favored by newspaper advertisers, it's not surprising that these papers rarely take on the issue of class divisions. What is surprising is that over the past nine months the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have done exactly that. All three have published multi-part series about our growing economic inequalities. So how well did they do? I put the question to Barbara Ehrenreich, an author who writes extensively about poverty and class. We talked first about the New York Times series which, according to Ehrenreich, treated class as just another form of diversity, a point underscored for her by a Times reader.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: One day I noticed a letter to the editor about the New York Times series, which said gee, this is great, it's time we acknowledge all the great kinds of diversity in America and celebrated them all, diversity by race, by gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, etcetera, and class. Let's celebrate poverty? Yeah! I mean, this is not a difference like race. This is a difference which you have to see to a certain measure as arising from some kind of injustice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the problem then that it offers you these anecdotes of sort of the way we live, but it didn't take that further analytical step?
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Right. And, you know, there's one case that really stands in my mind from the New York Times series, which was the profile of a Mexican immigrant restaurant worker named Juan Manuel Peralta, and you know, he's struggling doing sort of okay. And then at a certain point he loses his job, a job he'd had for some time and which had provided some stability to him and his family. Well it goes by in a couple of sentences that the reason he lost his job was for labor activism. Well hey, wait a minute (LAUGHS), I wanted to say, this is interesting. Part of what has happened to a lot of people or working people in America is that they are subject to the whims of employers. So I think you have to see class in terms of relationships between groups of people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But when talking about unionizing as something that should have been the focus in the piece about the Mexican worker, are you saying that the Times really should have moved into advocacy?
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, I don't think--I'm not just talking about advocacy. I'm talking about an analysis. You know, why have we, a society that has prided itself on our egalitarianism and an equal opportunity for all, why have we turned in to such a deeply divided society by class? It takes analysis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's switch over to the Los Angeles Times series. Critics say that that series did the best job of analyzing the problems and even offering some solutions. How would you sum up its approach?
BARBARA EHRENREICH: This was, unfortunately, a very short series and nowhere near as rich as the Times series was in terms of portrayals of different people. But its strength, and we have to give reporter Peter Gosselin credit for this, is that it was analytical. The L.A. Times did take on the question of why is this happening and looked at such things as one, the decline of government supports, how housing subsidies have practically vanished, how things like Pell grants have not kept up with college tuition. The whole structure of government forms of help that have really helped create the American middle class after World War II has gone. The other part of it though that Gosselin emphasizes is that corporations have cut back on pensions that they offer, they offer much less in terms of health insurance, and much less security. And now those people don't have a safety net. That really gave me some framework, I thought, in the L.A. Times articles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so let's move on to the Wall Street Journal series now. How does that fall in with the New York Times approach and the L.A. Times approach?
BARBARA EHRENREICH: It seemed to fall between the two. It was somewhat more analytical than the New York Times, but nowhere near as analytical as the L.A. Times. And it seemed to me that, you know, to be rather skittish about drawing (LAUGHS) some of the unpleasant conclusions, that it really is harder to be upwardly mobile today, that you are likely to stick at the same level your parents were at. I felt it was holding these (LAUGHS) propositions off with tongs. (LAUGHTER) It was nervous about them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are institutions, and in a way they are the institutionalized perspective of a certain class. Do you think that's why the New York Times ran into problems?
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Partly it has to do with class polarization itself, that these newspapers and other media outlets are mainly staffed and run by people who are upper middle to upper class. So that means that we have these media decision makers who are really pretty clueless about people in the working class or even in the, you know, what we call the broad middle class. Just one anecdote on this. I was pitching a story to the editor of a major national magazine, which will go unnamed here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: (LAUGHS)
BARBARA EHRENREICH: And I was pitching a story about women and poverty, and I had a good angle. And he looked very bored. Finally at the end he kind of yawned and said, okay Barbara do your thing on poverty but could you make it upscale? (LAUGHS)
BROOKE GLADSTONE: (LAUGHS) Upscale poverty.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah. Now, what are you going to do with that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Barbara Ehrenreich, thank you very much.
BARBARA EHRENREICH: You're welcome, my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist and author of Nickel and Dimed, On Not Getting By in America.