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Writing for the Mainstream
An interview with Barbara Ehrenreich October 1997
Z: Over the years you have written in a lot of venues, ranging from newsletters to national left publications to mainstream periodicals and Time magazine. To what do you attribute this success?
EHRENREICH: Is it success, whatever exactly that is, or just compulsive productivity? If its the latter, I can explain a little: One, this is how I have made my living for over 20 years. If I dont write, we dont eat. A writer friend, who happens to be a beneficiary of inherited wealth, once innocently told me that she wished she had an incentive like that. (I refrained from suggesting a way she might attain it.) Two, I like doing it. Each article, column, or even short review is a temporary obsession, characterized by frantic research and moments of wild mania, tempered with crushing self-doubt. Adding up to a heady, thrill-filled life. Three, I figure this is the best contribution I can make to an improved world. I tried being an organization-type person, but had to give up after too many weekend-long meetings in windowless rooms.
Suppose there were five progressive writers with precisely your skills and energy, or even more. Do you think all five would be published as you are now, or are there very limited slots for such people?
I dont know. Theres evidence on both sides. On the one hand, a number of other progressive writers do get into the mainstreamfor example, Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, Molly Ivins in her syndicated column, Katha Pollitt occasionally in the New York Times and the New Yorker. On the other hand, there are jobs I didnt get because (I assume) of my politics. USA Today for example once approached me about writing a weekly column. I was thrilled. But after I sent them some sample columns, as requested, they told me frostily that they had chosen Susan Estrich instead. Was it my politics, my overly cutting styleor perhaps some flaw in my personal hygiene?
Why dont the power lunches seduce you and turn your priorities around? Once plied with cooptive offers from publishers and editors, few people retain their integrity. What is key to doing so? What advice do you have for leftists who try to write in the mainstream rather than only for progressive outlets?
No one has made a big effort to seduce me with pelts, power lunches, or "cooptive offers." I wish they wouldjust as a test of character, of course. In my experience, however, those high-priced lunches leave me needing a slice of pizza two hours later. But what probably makes me relatively co-optation-proof is that bit about obsession mentioned above. I cant write about what I dont care about or if I dont feel I can say what I want. For example, about two years ago, a magazine offered me a tempting sum to fly out to Hollywood and do a profile of Sharon Stone. This is, of course, the drift these daysthe religious adulation of celebrities. But I dont give a flying fuck about Sharon Stone, so, for purely practical and writerly reasons, I had to pass.
What do you think the difference is, editorially and otherwise, between the various media publications you have written for? MJ, the Nation, Z, and whatever others you can think of? What do you think is the origin of these differences?
This question is more than a little vague. There are all kinds of differences. Some places are too controlling and over-edit. Some dont edit enough. And so forth. The most interesting editorial difference I have run into, though, is that between the U.S. and the UK. For years I wrote a column for The Guardian in the UK, where I found that much more in the way of nastiness, satire, and general poor taste is allowable than here. Columns that had been published in The Guardian would sometimes be rejected by left publications here, on the grounds that they were too gross or might hurt someones feelings.
Whats mainstream, in your experience, as a reader and writer, about mainstream media? What is the process that causes the New York Timess content to be so skewed, even distorted, compared to reality, both factually and editorially? What distinguishes Time, do you think, from General Motors?
I have no idea what goes on at the New York Times, or inside Time, for that matter. My relationship to these places is almost entirely virtual and conducted by email, phone, and fax. I dont know how the editors make decisions or even, in most cases, what they look like. I figure this is how it should be: I dont write for the editors, I write for the readers, and the less I have the editors in my mind, the freer I am to address the readers.
Okay, you dont attend editorial meetings or sit in the office of the owners plotting strategy. But surely you have some view as to why mainstream media operates as it does and on whether it is just another corporation, seeking profits by selling audience to advertisers, or perhaps has some special attributes that also have to be considered to understand its behavior.
Like you, I know something about how the media operate from reading McChesney and Herman, Bagdikian, the folks at FAIR, and many others. As you suggest, they increasingly operate like any other business. But that is not exactly breaking news. Its time to move beyond being shocked by the fact that the media are profit-driven and conglomerate-owned and start paying more attention to how these facts distort not only "the news," but our entire culture and politics. Example: Crime reporting is profitable in that it attracts viewers and readers, hence the extravagant over-emphasis on crime (especially on local TV news.) Hence also the punitive frenzy that drives ever more vicious sentencing, the boom in prison construction, prison privatization, etc.even as violent crime declines. Other examples: Terrorism. It makes for hot news (though it seldom happens, especially at the hands of the stereotypical Arab fanatic) and leads to ever-more surveillance and other limitations on personal freedom in the name of anti-terrorism. We are talking, in short, about mass delusion: a culture whose collective perceptions diverge wildly from verifiable reality because the delusion is far from eye-catching and profitable to print than anything that might be actually happening.
Another kind of distortion is represented by the recent Princess Di phenomenon. In an article in the Washington Post a few years ago, Todd Gitlin and I referred to this sort of thing as a media "spasm," in which the media and the public get tied up in a temporarily unstoppable positive feedback loop: First the media give us the story: Di dies; Saddam invades Kuwait; whatever. Then, if the story sells well, they give us more of it, along with accounts of how we, the public, feel about it. As these accounts multiply (tragic scenes of mourners at the palace, etc.), our feelings grow, leading us to want more of the story which the media of course give us, along with more news of "unprecedented global mass outpouring of grief." The spasm goes oncrowding out all other newsuntil we overdose on it and the whole thing just gets boring. (Of course, it is the media execs who determine when weve had enough and its time to move along to the next story du jour.)
Media spasms illustrate an important point about our profit-driven, pack-oriented media industry: It doesnt just "manipulate" in an old-fashioned, propagandistic wayits extremely sensitive to the public or at least to what media execs think the public thinks and wants. (They do lots of polling to find out what we want.) Of course, much of what we think and want is already shaped by the mediahence the feedback loops. But models of top-down manipulation dont tell the whole story of our market-driven media. We, the readers or consumers, are very much a part of what is going on. We are complicit.
Isnt it a little like saying we are complicit in the policies of GM because we buy cars, or in those of TV because we watch, or in election outcomes because we vote? Sure, its true in one sense, but if owners, publishers, political parties set the range of available options very narrowly, and then we choose among those, we are choosing, of course, but only in a very limited sense. Those spasms you mention are never: "Cigarette Manufacturers Kill MillionsLeave Crime Families in Their Dust as Murder Incorporated"; or "U.S. Starves Iranian Babies Without Mercy or RespiteStory, Pictures, and Further Revelations at Eleven"; or "Prison Building Robs Monies from Social Services even as Crime Rate Drops."
We have more of a choice about what we want to believe or get excited about than we do about, say, whether we should own a car. Social movements like the civil rights and feminist movement were not inspired by exciting headlines; the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s grew with little or no cheerleading from the media. Similarly, people have a choice of whether to obsess about OJ and cry over Dias opposed, for example, to getting worked up about the toxic factory in their neighborhood. You have to have a car to get to work, but you dont have to get sucked up into the media spasm of the moment. Im not blaming people: In a lonely and atomized culture there is a great temptation to join in whatever fleeting surge of communal feeling they can find, whether its adoration of foreign royalty or the Green Bay Packers. But people do have a choice.
Have you ever experienced a direct overt impact of advertising on editorial policy, either in the mainstream or alternative media? What about the more subtle impact of the need to sell advertismentsthat is, the fact that the overall impact of the periodical on its readers has to be such that readers are open to ads, ready to buy what is offered, including being able to afford it?
Have I ever encountered advertising-based censorship? Is the Pope Catholic? Yes, and I have encountered it in an "alternative" publication as well as the biggies. This is, after all, capitalism, which is not quite the same as the perfect first amendment democracy. The problem arises when the editors are less than forthcoming about their concerns. If, for instance, they say something like "this just doesnt, um, work for us" rather than: "Dammit, you know the rules: No saying mean things about advertisers." I am left wondering why didnt it "work?" That can be real torment: trying to distinguish between actual censorship and the straightforward rejection of an article which, for some reason not apparent to the writer, sucks.
In light of the Teamsters recent strike victory, I wonder how you regard the way in which class issues are dealt with, both in mainstream and alternative media. How much do you think coverage of class and economic issues suffers from the fact that so few people who do the reporting have any material solidarity or shared experience with working-class people?
Class issues are not dealt with in the mainstream media, for two reasons: One, every publication strives for "good demographics," meaning affluent readers who will appeal to potential advertisers. No one wants their rag to be known as the favorite reading of truck drivers or word processors, no one even wants them reading it. Two, media decision-makers (editors and executives) are largely unaware of any class alternative to their own, unless it is the truly rich or the long-term jobless poor, who are invariably seen as drug addicts and muggers. When they do notice what we would call the working class, they see it as a vestige of the 1930s, and usually as an eyesore. I could give dozens of examples of class cluelessness in the media. Heres one. It was the 1980s and I was pitching a column on how middle class women could solve the fabled man shortage by marrying blue collar men. The editor screwed up her expensively maintained face and said, "But can they talk?"
Or for another example: I was struggling to explain the concept of class polarization to the editor of a stylish national magazine, but we couldnt seem to get past the concept of class itself. We got into how class isnt just about income, but about "culture" (which is, of course, very much affected by income) and somehow I found myself saying that the different classes even favor different foodse.g., yuppie brie vs. proletarian Kraft individually wrapped slices. "Gee," he finally saidreflecting on that great insight"Do you think you could base this all on a cheese?"
What makes you continue the media work you do? Is it just a good job? Or are you just fighting the good fight with little hope? Or do you think we can win?
In addition to the pleasures of the craft, I am sustained by the occasional letter or encounter with someone who tells me that, thanks to my stuff, they know theyre not the only nut in the world. I also bear in mind what a staff member at the Communication Workers of America once identified to me as the "marble" theory of social change: You have a whole mass of marbles on the floor. You roll one toward the center of the mass; it hits another, which maybe hits another; and, if youre lucky, and if a whole lot of other people are rolling theirs in the same direction from time to time, maybe all the marbles will eventually, bit by bit, begin to move.