Elitism, and with it, the ability to ignore the pain and suffering of those with no voice, is the true common denominator in American news coverage. Press reports often are about securing access to the rich and powerful, about what news organizations believe the public wants to hear. There’s also the embedded assumption within the news establishment that the American public simply isn’t smart or caring enough to understand serious news that doesn’t involve or look like them.
The news media lets its captive American audience down because it seldom treats events with equal intensity. This is especially true of international news, which outside of The New York Times, NPR, Vice News, and PBS, is virtually nonexistent. On October 14, a suicide bomber set off two truck bombs in the center of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, leaving at least 300 dead and more than 300 wounded. And though American reporting on this terrorist attack has been more robust than usual, it is hardly 24/7. Instead, the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace and his decades of predatory sexual harassment has been the dominant news story. Not to mention, the daily drumbeat around President Donald Trump, his anti-Obama policies, and his unhinged tweets and press conferences.
A more classic example of disproportionate news coverage occurred in May. The American press reported around-the-clock on the suicide bombing at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, a tragedy that took 23 lives. Yet that same week, gunmen surrounded a bus full of Egyptian Coptic Christians on their way to a monastery and killed 29 men, women, and children, and wounded two dozen others. American news coverage of the Egypt attack was the equivalent of crickets in the woods by comparison. One could easily substitute the reportage on the London Tube (the city’s subway system) attack at the Parsons Green station that injured 30 in September and compare it to the minimal coverage of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar since the middle of August. Or, contrast it with the widespread flooding that killed more than 1,200 in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and left more than 40 million people homeless, school-less, without work, or with farmland too ruined to work. This is more than the idea that Black and Brown lives matter far less than European and White ones. It is the unwitting elitist judgment within American news organizations that stability, peace, justice, and innocence only belong to those living in the West.
Domestically, American news is just as slanted in favor of elitism and access. Puerto Rico and its 3.5 million people have suffered and died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and from malignant government neglect over the past three weeks According to one report, at least 450 Puerto Ricans may have died from this one-two punch of climate-change tragedy and federal government incompetence. Yet most of the American news on Puerto Rico has focused on Trump’s statements blaming its people for their own misery. The American press has been covering Puerto Rico as if it’s just another poor country, one full of brown-skinned people, one that really has nothing to do with Americans or American interests at all.
Even when the reporting involves the continental US and White Americans, the elitism remains obvious. White male terrorist attacks have been on the rise in recent years, especially in the year since Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election. Stephen Paddock orchestrated the latest attack, the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas that scattered a crowd of 22,000 concert-goers, as he killed 58 and wounded more than 500 before taking his own life. The American press, true to itself, has refused to use the word terrorism to describe the attack. The incident itself has faded from the news media’s eyeline. But what reporting there has been in the weeks since has included a focus on Paddock’s possible motive and his mental health status. Their coverage, though, has also included a heavy dose of the elitist trope of all-American individual heroes triumphing over individual evildoers. Treatment of these incidents reveals the significant role news reportage plays in perpetuating stereotypes. In this case, one where White criminality is rare and unusual, while Arab Americans are automatically Islamic terrorists. A monolithic, elitist news media makes this half-baked reporting possible.
The triumph of elitism in news stems from forty years of corporate consolidation across all platforms (thanks to Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner) and the increasing socioeconomic exclusion within the industry’s ranks. According to freelance writer and editor David Dennis, Jr., the industry is “populated by those who can afford the jobs,” predominantly by White men (and to lesser extent, White women) in an era of shrinking staffs. The “they” attend elite universities and colleges, earn master’s degrees at journalism schools, and mostly work unpaid internships as the entry point for their careers. The increasing abundance of affluent individuals in the field has also “changed the way issues are reported and the quality of the product” Americans consume. News organizations and the people they employ are every bit as representative of the American elite as the affluent business leaders and powerful politicians on whom they regularly report. Keeping things simple and giving “equal time” to “both sides”—unless it involves Americans of color and the developing world—is a reflection of elitist values, a rationale that undermines the industry’s own claims of objectivity and fairness.
Defenders of simplistic news media reporting, though, often remind the public of what the news media is not. The Fourth Estate is certainly neither liberal nor conservative, an accusation made all too often by the ill-informed American public. As New York University media critic and expert Jay Rosen once wrote “It’s very simple. The press isn’t on the side of the left or the right…vs. This is complicated!” Although tongue-in-cheek, embedded within Rosen’s quip was his own elitist assumption that the news media’s work is variegated and knotty, a mere reflection of the world at large, and not a reflection of its own elitist bubble.
It is the elitist nature of today’s news media that has rendered press coverage as little more than breaking news bulletins for the American public. All while the real global divides at the intersections of race, economic inequality, gender, and immigration remain mostly sidelined. It remains all too easy for the news media to rely on tropes like heroes and villains and the civilized West versus the uncivilized developing world.