In 1996, James Carville was asked what he thought about Paula Jones’s claims of being sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton. He said, “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” The liberal press didn’t respond much to Carville’s comment, but conservative pundits like George Will rallied to defend Jones, arguing that such remarks reflected the underlying disrespect and elitism that many Democrats and especially the liberal media have for the working class.
Twenty years later, after five election cycles, campaign reporters and editors still disparage the working class. For example, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) suggested that organizers of the Republican convention could house Sarah Palin’s “whole dysfunctional family in a trailer park in Ashtabula,” a largely working-class community in northeast Ohio. This incensed Pulitzer Prize winner and former Plain Dealer reporter, Connie Schultz, who wrote, “I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash.’ These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means. Every group has its ‘other.’ For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”
Clearly, journalists have been having difficulty understanding the politics of resentment that has fueled the Trump and Sanders campaigns, but they also don’t recognize that middle-class voters share in those resentments. As Jack Metzgar has documented, the working class is underrepresented among Trump supporters. But listening to the media you would think that Trump’s support was coming almost entirely from an ignorant and biased working class.
Thomas Frank chides journalists for helping to foster a version of liberalism that serves the interests of the wealthy. In his new book, Listen, Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People, he argues that the media ignored the economic damages liberal policies inflicted on the working and middle classes.. Instead, he writes, they offered “an endless stream of stories about drug arrests, shootings, drunk-driving crashes, the stupidity of local politicians and the lamentable surplus of ‘affordable housing.’”
Why is it so hard for the media to understand and respect the working class? Brent Cunningham, former editor of Columbia Journalism Review, explains that many reporters have blind spots that make it difficult for them to see anything that undermines the myths of neoliberal economics, individual responsibility, modernity and progress. These attitudes reflect journalists’ own class positionality, Cunningham suggests. For much of the twentieth century, many journalists grew up in working-class neighborhoods and regularly spent time with working-class people. Marilyn Geewax, business editor at NPR, grew-up in working-class Youngstown. She fondly remembers how, when she was a reporter at the Beacon Journal in Akron years ago, the reporters would go out after work and drink “boilermakers” with the typesetters and printers and discuss all aspects of life. As Cunningham says, this connection produced “a strain of journalism that was much more organically connected to the poor and the working class.” Today, reporters are more likely to come from middle-class backgrounds, have professional training, and spend most of their time with other educated, professional people. They misrepresent the working class because they don’t know them, spend time with them, or build relationships with them.
To be fair, some journalists recognize their blind spots and want to cover the working class well. When I was asked to speak about the reporting on the working class to the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001, I started by asking why the conveners were interested in class. They said that their editors were angry that they had missed the story of the unrest behind the “Battle in Seattle.” Instead of writing about class perceptions and conflicts, they had presented the protests as “street theater.” When I asked why they found it difficult to write about working class, their answers ranged from basic ignorance to willful self-censorship associated with their own new precarity. On some level, I think, they were simply confused about class and remain so.
No doubt, discussions of social class, especially the working class, are complicated. Not only can class be defined in multiple and sometimes conflicting ways, but it also intersects in confusing ways with other aspects of identity and culture, especially race. That’s part of what makes this year’s populist politics so confounding for many. As Jelani Cobb explained in The New Yorker, American populism has often been driven by both “economic malaise” and “fears inspired by racial progress.” Equally important, he writes, populism reflects “the belief that these two things are synonymous.”
Cobb’s analysis offers a powerful contrast to much of what we’re hearing about class and racism in this year’s election. It helps, of course, that he is also a trained historian. Perhaps what journalists and politicos really need is not a reminder to avoid classism, or even the kind of quick lesson in class that I offered to the Society of Professional Journalists, but a much deeper understanding of the intersections between class and race, the complexity of class identity, and the history of class conflict.
John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Class