By Ralph Nader
On January 30, 2013, an unusual front-page story appeared prominently in The Washington Post about a small D.C. charity called Martha’s Table that serves meals to 1,100 people a day, has early-childhood and after-school programs, and provides other community-enriching programs. Among its distinctions is a giant volunteer corps of, according to the Post, “10,000 school kids, poor people and the occasional president who chops vegetables and builds sandwiches.” Fascinating!
The only reason for the Post writing and front-paging the article is that the new, full-time, volunteer president is Patty Stonesifer, ex-Microsoft megamillionaire, ex-chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and ex-chairperson of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents. Amazing!
The Post’s million readers also got to see Ms. Stonesifer say, “I was amazed at how there is a city within a city here….This idea that the District [of Columbia] has so much child hunger, it’s mind-boggling.”
The Post, the local television stations and cable shows often do not showcase the District’s big dirty secret. That, among its glittering affluent class (mostly shorn of noblesse oblige), half-dozen major universities and governmental departments, there is widespread, deep poverty, unhealthy and afflicted children, and higher rates of cancer and diabetes, for example, than most states.
What is important to the Post and other local media are local professional sports, local entertainment, visiting celebrities, and endless gossip or other permutations of such page- and time-fillers. The Post obviously believes that the injured knee of rookie sensation, Robert Griffin III and its impact on the Redskins’ organization are too big for its sport pages, and required multiple front-page stories since RGIII injured himself during playoffs in January.
The Post has been cutting back – ending its separate daily business section and its separate Sunday Book Review section. But its (spectator) sports section remains large with numerous reporters, columnists, feature writers, editors and gossip-mongers frantically scurrying around.
The Post’s front page features an article by sports columnist Sally Jenkins, but not one by their recently retired, superb business columnist Steve Pearlstein, who tells readers how and why their living standards are being mauled by big business. I doubt that readers would be upset were Ms. Jenkins to have written that column back in the sports pages instead.
When one of America’s leading newspapers decides to lighten up or stupefy – take your pick – its content at a time of grave developments and degradations in our society – local, regional, national and international, “We the People” need to be part of the conversation. It is not sufficient to be told vaguely about the illusive “surveys” of reader opinion that do not convey the availability of real choices.
Space and time for serious matters are also increasingly limited in other news outlets. Over 90 percent of commercial radio is music and advertisements. Commercial TV entertainment and ads are not far behind. There are fewer examples of serious, compelling programming by the national afternoon entertainment shows than there were in the Phil Donahue, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin shows. These shows found some time to inform readers about auto safety, unsafe medicines and other consumer and environmental subjects. Now, it is nonstop sadomasochism, reality show family drama or other similar kinds of cheating and betrayals in relationships. Forget about local television shows – most are long gone, having been displaced by these syndicated shows.
Bear in mind, much of this modern Sodom and Gomorrah is conducted on our public airwaves used by broadcasters for free. When I called Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, the leading bloviated soliloquists on radio, “corporate welfare kings,” they were nonplussed as if profitably using our public airwaves without payment is their birthright.
This week, the media buildup is for the Superbowl. Endless articles, features and gossip, with huge photographs, swarm superficially over the pages and airwaves and cable networks. There is simply no such restraint. Enough is enough! Soon, the buildup will be for Hollywood’s Oscars on February 24, and all the “players” will be profiled and psycho-analyzed.
In the meantime, valiant Americans are striving to reduce or prevent the pain, anguish and costs of preventable tragedies – poverty, repression, marginalization, exclusion and the chronic indifference to posterity in favor of vested pressures for instant gratification. The press releases, reports, accomplishments and testimonies of those striving for justice receive very little coverage from the mass media.
Groups with compelling causes come from around the country to the National Press building for well-prepared news conferences only to find no one there from the press, except an occasional indie reporter. NPR and PBS do not come close to wanting to fill some of this void.
Without media coverage, the civic community cannot, even if it demonstrates in the streets and squares, expand its audience of concern. Citizen morale struggles to persist in the face of powerful opposition. Gone is the wisdom of famed newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer who advised his reporters “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
People in the colony of the District of Columbia march, protest, and host important news conferences to press for statehood so that they can have a voting representative and senator(s) in Congress. They regularly get shut out of the local media. After all, it’s only electoral democracy they’re working to install.
Maybe a blend is necessary. How about Robert Griffin III becoming the full-time chair of the D.C. statehood association, in the off-season? Or would that give the editors of the Post too much cognitive dissonance?