Forty years ago, the typical person in the western world read the local newspaper. It told you which local butcher was retiring, who had celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and it covered the local politicians, athletes and business owners. Twenty years ago, the typical person read the national paper. It covered the national elite. Today that person gets news or Twitter feeds from websites that cover the global elite: everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama.
This shift – from local news to global – is well-known. Less well-known is one of its consequences: news has become news about rich people. Today’s economic inequality is reflected and driven by inequality of news.
Much of this news about rich people is produced by just a few English-language sources. A wire service will put out a story, a newspaper will get a scoop or BBC.com will run a headline, and within seconds the “news” gets parroted by websites, TV channels and newspapers from Warsaw to Waikiki. It saves them hiring their own reporters. Lady Gaga sings at a gay pride rally in Rome and the whole world simply reprints the story.
And so news becomes news about a small global elite of athletes, entertainers, royals and politicians. I saw this last week on my first visit to India. I’d heard that the Indians had Bollywood, and various other Indian interests. Yet the Hindustan Times’s “Entertainment” section appeared almost monomaniac about Hollywood. Perhaps the defining story described the abuse the actress Keira Knightley had taken from her director while filming Pride & Prejudice. I quote from the Hindustan Times: “‘Shut your mouth and stop doing the pout!’ he was yelling at me,’ Stuff.co.nz quoted Knightley as telling the French edition of Grazia.”
The Hindustan Times hadn’t even taken this news directly from Stuff.co.nz. It had got it from a wire service. In short, the same few stories about the same few celebrities duplicate like viruses.
These celebrities are overwhelmingly Anglophone. Only stories in English get duplicated around the world. People who write in English prefer celebrities who speak English. In Forbes magazine’s recent list of the “World’s Most Powerful Celebrities”, the highest-ranked non-native-English-speaker was Cristiano Ronaldo at number 43, and even he had created his brand while playing in England.
The global elite has grown fantastically rich in recent decades: the average person on Forbes’s list pocketed an estimated $45m last year. Consequently, we’re forever reading about rich people. Indeed, being rich has become almost the criterion for being newsworthy. A sportsman or artist who isn’t rich is not counted as successful and therefore not given airtime. And if you get airtime, you can generally convert it into more money through endorsements, speaking fees or reality TV (the future for New York’s Congressman Anthony Weiner). Everyone in the news is rich, or soon becomes so. (Cognoscenti call this the Sarah Palin Effect.)
The daily focus on the rich has two consequences. First, these people become part of our own imagined peer group, and so we grow dissatisfied with our own income. It was more soothing to read about the local butcher than about the commodity trader Ivan Glasenberg and his £5.8bn.
Second, we forget the poor. They may always be with us, but not in the media. The perhaps 2.5 billion people with less than $2 a day get ignored, due to the triple whammy of being poor, non-white and non-Anglophone.
For instance, there’s a new treatment that stops the spread of Aids, but rich countries are reluctant to fund it. This has generated a few worthy editorials in highbrow publications, but otherwise is considered too boring to tweet.
Even the white Anglophone poor struggle for airtime. “Coverage of poverty is peripheral in mainstream UK media,” concluded a report called “The Media, Poverty and Public Opinion in the UK” by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2008. For instance, the Foundation found that in 40 hours of TV analysed, “the word ‘poverty’ appeared only twice, both in Shameless”, a comedy drama.
When poor people did get airtime, it was often as objects of derision on Jerry Springer-like shows. The Foundation concluded: “What is entirely missing is working-class (or even lower-middle-class) poverty in any meaningful sense, i.e. people struggling to make ends meet who do not descend into… criminality, or resort to violence, or defraud the State, or are hopelessly lacking in resources of other kinds, or deliver themselves up voluntarily as the objects of condescending display.”
At best, the poor get covered as a faceless group: young Spanish demonstrators, or foreclosed Americans in tent cities, or African Aids orphans. Rich people appear as individuals, and are therefore more vivid. Even when we depict them as “fat cats”, they are the story. In fact, we’ve become exactly the media that an unequal world requires.