There is perhaps nothing which so perfectly exposes the partisan instincts of the political press as do our various National Conversations on poverty issues. When poverty again becomes a major focus of the media, as it often does when Republicans are on the political ascendancy, the intentions of Democrats are almost always framed as pure and decent. Republicans, meanwhile, are morally bankrupt, indecent, and self-serving – often simply for refusing to throw money at the problem at hand.
Does that characterization sound a little unforgiving of the press? It should, and they have earned it. The most recent example of this noxious impulse was displayed this week in the political media’s coverage of two seemingly unrelated stories.
The first is the journalistic establishment’s take on a collective Democratic push to convince the public that the federal minimum wage is so low that forcing anyone to live on it essentially constitutes a human rights violation.
“Have you ever seen a congressman snacking on a measly tin of sardines?” an ABC News report published on Tuesday asked. “Or maybe a governor ordering a McChicken off the dollar menu?”
Gasp! The gross indignity of living on a budget which “doesn’t allow for luxuries.”
“I basically had a couple bags of peanuts in the cloakroom–and there was a little fruit in the office that I ate yesterday,” a tormented Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) told ABC.
“Rep. Tim Ryan has cut out his afternoon coffee break and trip to Dairy Queen with his kids. No fresh fish or glass of wine with dinner. When he ran out of vitamins, he didn’t go out and buy another bottle,” a sympathetic portrayal of Ryan’s ordeal in a post on MSNBC.com read. “This week, he’s decided that he can’t afford it.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) received equally favorable treatment from the press when, surrounded by cameras, she suffered the humiliation of having to consume a – shudder – tuna fish sandwich. And we’re not talking Bluefin here either. It came from a can!
Former Democratic Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland sought sympathy for his meager menu in an article he penned for Politico Magazine. “Most mornings started with eggs and toast, bought last Sunday during a grocery trip costing more than $15. Lunches were normally leftovers, macaroni and cheese or McDonald’s,” the former governor grumbled. “There were no big dinners or coffee stops on a whim.”
Strickland recounted his inability to buy cold medicine and how he chose more often to walk than to take public transportation; realities that millions of Americans contend with, even those who do not have to subsist on minimum wage.
None of this is to say that a minimum wage lifestyle is comfortable – it is not. And those who contend that it should be raised make compelling arguments (as do those who argue the opposite). The painfully tone-deaf fashion in which these politicians attempt to communicate to average Americans what it is like to live life as an average American, however, is equal parts insulting and comedic. Somehow, this obvious dynamic is lost on the press.
When Republicans attempt to raise awareness on poverty, the media is all too eager to imply that these self-interested actors are merely engaging in stunts and that their motives are suspect.
Take, for example, California’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari who, Bloomberg News declared, recently spent a week “pretending to be homeless.”
If you were predisposed to feel any sympathy for Kashkari’s campaign to raise awareness to extreme poverty, Bloomberg’s Karen Weise disabused you of that sentiment in the opening paragraph.
California Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari—a former investment banker who headed up the federal bank bailout, worked for investing giant Pimco, and now lives in a $10 million house in Newport Beach—spent a week on the streets of Fresno pretending to be homeless. Then he wrote about it for the Wall Street Journal.
The second paragraph notes how far behind the GOP gubernatorial candidate is in head-to-head polls with incumbent Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. The implication is clear: Kashkari’s is a publicity campaign and you should not become too invested in his crusade.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is also set to receive the media’s scorn and mockery as he reengages in an anti-poverty campaign aimed at tackling the issue from a conservative perspective. The last time Ryan mounted a similar push, he was derided in media outlets raging from Think Progress to NBC News as having evidenced racist sympathies simply for echoing a sentiment expressed by Barack Obama. He will surely receive similar treatment in the mainstream press as he embarks on an August book tour.
The disparity in the treatment the media dishes out to Republicans who dare attempt to chip away at the Democratic Party’s monopoly on empathy for the impoverished is telling. The “War” to eliminate income disparity has objectively failed, and those who continue to support failing anti-poverty programs are finding that the only arrow left in their quiver is to jeer at their critics.
To extend the metaphor, the press has become an unabashed ally of the left in the effort to prevent Republicans from gaining ground in the War on Poverty, and they should be treated by Republicans as combatants.