Boston, Bangladesh, Berkeley--Who Are the "People Like Us"?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday April 26, 2013 - 01:15:00 PM

My day gets off to a better start when Jon Carroll has a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, which since I’m an old-school kind of person still appears on my doorstep in print. This doesn’t happen every day, since the Hearst management which now runs the show over there seems to think that four times a week with frequent absences is plenty of exposure for columnists like Jon.

And I must admit that though I like cats I would prefer never to read 800 words about their cute antics, which is sometimes what Carroll thinks would make a fine piece on a slow day. I can take or leave his columns about the daily life of an aging home-based newsie, a topic I know only too well.

What he does best is two things: nonsense and soapbox. His goofy stuff is sometimes inspired. When I was an editor at Pacific News Service long ago he applied for a job there, submitting with his resume a couple of pieces which were pure Dada. I loved them and wanted to immediately offer him the position. I can’t remember whether soberer heads overruled me—PNS always took itself very seriously— or whether he changed his mind, but he didn’t get the job.

But it’s Carroll’s soapbox pieces—rarer and rarer these days—which are well worth the price of admission. Sadly, the price of admission has gone up. The Chronicle is now hiding its columnists online behind a pay wall, which means that fewer and fewer readers will see them.

Today’s column is the kind of thing which deserves the widest possible audience, and it won’t get it. I think this link will get you over the pay wall, and if you can find the piece, please read it. Not, of course, that I agree 100% with what he has to say, but it’s a topic that everyone should ponder.

Just in case you can’t read the column, here’s how it begins:

“How do we measure our tragedies? Is an industrial accident that kills 14 more tragic than a bombing that kills three? Is it body count that makes the difference? Or is it the age of the victims, so that younger victims count more? Or is it defenseless victims?

“Do we ration our grief by some metric that determines where an incident falls on the tragedy scale? Assuming we don't know anyone involved, how do we decide how affected we will be by this shooting or that explosion? Does the news media have anything to do with it? After all, it is the media that sets the tragedy bar. From the media, we know that the bombing that killed three is more important than the fertilizer plant explosion that killed at least 14.

“We know that from the coverage. It was wall-to-wall search for the suspects. The search for the reasons for the industrial accident was sort of a nonstarter. It was, "Well, you know, fertilizer." Only a few news outlets asked questions about OSHA inspections and previous failures of the plant to follow the rules. “

He goes on to suggest that the plant disaster story was perceived as less important because it was about the failure of government regulation, with attendant neo-con political overtones. Last night on MSNBC Chris Hayes nailed that topic with a detailed report on exactly why dangerous plants like this one continue to exist outside government safety standards.

They’re right: The public’s declining understanding of the role of government in protecting citizens is a big problem. It’s a disgrace to see Tea Party types haranguing against government interference when people are dying because of the lack of it in places like the West, Texas, fertilizer plant.

But there’s more to the question of why few news outlets bothered to pursue the causes of the Texas explosion. It’s a class thing. 

The major media these days is affected by the same dumbbell distribution of wealth that burdens all of American society. The tragedy at the Boston Marathon got a lot of coverage in the national media because it affected “people like us”, the well-paid, securely upper middle class reporters for the big time outlets both print and electronic. They could easily imagine themselves running in a big footrace, not so easily working in a fertilizer factory. 

It’s true that these days most newspaper reporters are not part of this elite world. A friend who used to work for the New York Times just sent me a link to a Salon story that claims that studies now show that being a newspaper reporter is the “worst job of 2013”. 

Nonetheless, even poorly paid and overworked reporters for the deteriorating dailies are not the kind of people who’ve considered getting a job in a chemical plant in rural Texas. And they’re even less connected to the hundreds or perhaps thousands of Bangladeshis who have died in garment factories which make cheap clothes for Walmart and its ilk, probably the self-same cheap clothes which workers in Texas buy for themselves—not, in any way, “people like us.” 

We’re a bit more than a century away from the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a New York City tragedy in which 143 garment workers died. They were mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, groups whose descendants have entered the ranks of “people like us”, so the centennial of that event received a lot of attention in the media a couple of years ago. The manufacturing jobs of such workers have shifted to people in Bangladesh, to people not so much “like us”, and with even fewer guarantees of safety. 

In the century since the Triangle fire, the United States made modest progress in protecting workers in this country, though much was undone in the Bush era. But worldwide, things are simply getting worse. 

The challenge for conscientious reporters today, at whatever level, is to convey to readers that workers like these everywhere, both in unregulated factories in Texas and true hellholes in Asia, are just as much in need of protection in an era of globalization as athletes in Boston. Empathy is the major criterion, a quality in increasingly short supply in the American press. 

For more information from Berkeley's David Bacon: http://www.progressive.org/bangladesh-disaster