Best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich – probably best known for her 2001 book “Nickel and Dimed” – has long been on the forefront of promoting stories about working people in an often hostile media environment. Recently, she has been heading the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. An endeavor inspired in part by the Federal Writers Project of the 1930s, the initiative aims “to force this country’s crisis of poverty and economic insecurity to the center of the national conversation.”
I spoke with Ehrenreich about this crisis of economic insecurity, about the invisibility of working people in the mainstream media, and about the current state of journalism.
That working people are chronically underrepresented in the media – even in times of economic downturn – is a sad reality readily apparent to anyone who has surveyed the American news landscape. Given this, I asked Ehrenreich if she thought this problem has been a constant, or if has it gotten worse in recent years.
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“It’s always been something of a problem,” she said, “for two reasons. The first reason I discovered in my years as a freelance writer in the 1980s and 90s. That is: magazines and newspapers want to please their advertisers. Their advertisers want to think they are reaching wealthy people, people who will buy the products. They don’t want really depressing articles about misery and hardship near their ads.”
“The other reason is that typically the gatekeepers in these media outlets, the top editors and producers, have been from a social class quite far removed from what we are talking about. They have no clue. I found that this could be very, very dispiriting.”
“I remember pitching a story to an editor in the 1980s. It had something to do with working-class men. The editor said, ‘Well, can they talk?'”
“It’s almost otherworldly,” Ehrenreich continued. “The editors would use the word ‘articulate,’ as in, ‘Could you find someone articulate?’ Like the rest of the people are just going around grunting. Those are two long-standing structural forces against good coverage in the media.”
Next, I asked Ehrenreich about the power of telling individuals’ stories and how she approached storytelling in her work. The question produced an unexpected exchange.
“I actually don’t focus on storytelling,” Ehrenreich answered. “I’ve heard that said about my work before, but I don’t know where that comes from …”
I contended that “Nickel and Dimed,” which told of her time working a number of low-wage jobs in the service sector, clearly had a lot to do with relating the stories of her co-workers.
“It’s about me, though,” Ehrenreich responded. “It’s a story about me; first person. I was not in a position to really tell people’s stories. I could just describe the work.”
She continued: “My feeling about the coverage of poverty is that we have had a lot of stories. There’s the story of a hard-working, good person or family, ground down to nothing. We all quietly read and say, ‘Oh yes, gee, this is terrible; these nice decent people.’ Well, I don’t think that’s enough anymore. I don’t think that does the trick. I want stories that really make you indignant.”
“One of the things that I focus on is how easy it is now to get into serious trouble with the law because you don’t have much money – and then to get poorer and poorer because you get in serious trouble with the law. The classic example would be if you have a broken headlight on your car, but you can’t fix it because that would cost over $100. So you get stopped by the police, and you get a fine of maybe $100 or $200. If you could have paid that, you could have fixed the damn light! Now you have this debt to the government. If you don’t pay that, you begin to be in really big trouble that just builds and builds. More fines and fees are added, and they will all accumulate interest too. At some point, if you haven’t paid, you are very likely to have a warrant out for your arrest.”
Playing devil’s advocate, I suggested that many people would respond to a story like that by saying they’re not sympathetic, because the person broke the law.
“That’s something that we’re coming up against,” Ehrenreich said. “Do we always have to be worried that when we present somebody who’s economically struggling that there’s going to be the same response? I’ve been around the country talking about people in poverty and there will be somebody in the audience that says, ‘Well, do they smoke cigarettes?’ People can be very good at finding out how poor people could improve their [own] lives, instead of looking at something like wage theft, where employers are stealing billions of dollars every year.”
I asked about what influence unions could have on the coverage of working people, and about the role of labor media – citing examples such as the Newspaper Guild, the St. Paul Union Advocate and the Milwaukee Labor Press.
“I think that the union-created media is not very prominent,” Ehrenreich responded. “There is no union media that is reaching out beyond its members, right now – or very little. People in the labor movement always talk about having radio shows and channels and so on, and it doesn’t happen. I don’t know what’s up with that.”
“Certainly, it’s confusing when you’re a writer. There are so many outlets now, but you don’t get paid. I’ve had the experience in the last two months of having something go really viral on those sorts of outlets, including some very mainstream places. If reporters could afford to do the work, there are readers waiting to get to them.”
“We’re at a point now where that mainstream media is in a state of collapse,” she noted. “It’s just not there. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans is down to three newspaper reporters. The kind of reporters who might have been doing reporting on economic hardship in 1995 for major newspapers are long gone, eliminated.”
Exploring the issue of lack of pay for writers, I asked Ehrenreich to talk about the Economic Hardship Reporting Project she has started.
“There’s a big problem now: you can’t get paid if you’re a writer. A lot of stories aren’t being told; a lot of work isn’t being done; because the people who would like to do it can’t work for free.”
“I started the Economic Hardship Reporting Project back in 2009,” she continued. “I was very frustrated by the coverage of the recession in the mainstream press. What coverage there was focused on things like people who had to cut back on their personal trainers. It was hardship for the wealthy. I contacted The New York Times and said, ‘I would like to do a series of essays on the effect of the recession on those people who are already struggling.’ I got a contract. I did a series of four pieces, which were well displayed in the Sunday newspapers. But I realized in the course of it that I was not really being paid enough even to cover my expenses.”
“I was at the same time watching my son, who was also a freelance writer, trying to get paid enough to do the kind of work he wanted to do. He would be doing something for The Nation about tent cities for a couple hundred dollars. And he was saying, ‘I can’t do this; I just can’t do it.’ Those were the personal experiences that led to the idea of raising money to pay journalists to do innovative coverage of the issues related to poverty and economic inequality and hardship.”
I asked how people could get connected with the project.
“They’re going to read this interview and then they’re going to come lining up at my door,” Ehrenreich joked.
Continuing, she explained, “At first we had to sort of beat the bushes for writers. Now more people are coming to us, including some very good, experienced writers. We’re looking for journalists who have ideas, who are interested in subjects we’re interested in. And we really nurture them. Some are highly skilled and don’t really need that much from us. But we typically help a writer develop a pitch, then we spend a lot of time with them discussing a research plan. When they have a draft we do a first edit before it goes out. With one of our writers, I was afraid we were driving her crazy with our demands for rewrites and new information. I kindly said, ‘Look, you’re getting a free journalism-school education from us. You’re getting the kind of help you will never get again.”
“I gave the commencement speech in 2009 at the Berkeley Journalism School. The dean told me, ‘Don’t be gloomy.’ I thought about that challenge and I said to the students, ‘I was told not to be gloomy. But I can say, you have great talents which no one is going to want to pay for. You have all this energy and talent, and you’re going to get jerked around by employers. You’re going to have a really rough time.’ Then I said, ‘Welcome to the American working class.’
“Basically, in the old times, journalism was a working class occupation. For a little period there, journalists were kind of elite. That’s just been taken away from us. No more of those nice lunches in Manhattan with your editor, and things like that.”
“I told the students, ‘This is not a career. This is a fight.'”