Data Journalists Don’t Know Anything About the Poor Anywhere

Annie LoweryLast year, I wrote an article that got quite a lot of attention thanks to a tweet by Max Blumenthal, News Bias Is a Choice to Lack Diversity. The article was about the implicit bias in the press because the reporters are all of the upper-middle and upper classes — cut off from the worlds of middle and lower class workers. I wrote, “This is why business reporters seem to only find news about the management side of business interesting. They don’t have any friends who are in labor unions.” The article got enough attention that Matt Yglesias read it and responded that reporters do known people in unions because most newspapers are unionized. Note the change from “are friends with” to “know.”

It’s a telling comment. I like Yglesias’ work very much. But he is blind to the interests of lower class workers who were so very well represented by unions in the decades before he was born. And he’s very much typical of a particular group of “data journalists” most symbolized by Vox. Again, I read Vox every day — they put out great work. But despite the publication’s claim that it is all about data, it is constrained as much by ideology as every other news outlet. It is just that their brand of soft neoliberalism is easily mistaken for the truth.

Matt YglesiasErik Loomis over at Lawyers, Guns & Money has been on this beat for a while. I first noticed it with an article earlier this month, What Does Dylan Matthews Think The Worst New York Times Article Published in the Last Decade Is? It turned out that it was article by Paul Theroux, The Hypocrisy of “Helping” the Poor. Basically, the Vox senior correspondent thought that it was wrong — Really wrong! — to complain about globalization hurting poor people in America when it was helping poor people in Bangladesh.

Matthews original complaint was just a tweet. Now, two articles have been published attacking the original article. Loomis has all the details, More on Paul Theroux, the Greatest Monster in Known History for Caring About American Workers. And he dives pretty deeply into the subject of the Washington data journalists’ ideological dysfunction. It is a mindless acceptance of globalization as a Good Thing™. We all know that, all things equal, more trade is a good thing. Thus, any given worker complaining about their troubles should just shut up.

This is almost literally true of Annie Lowery. A woman in Theroux’s article was complaining about how the Clinton Foundation did all this work in Africa, “Don’t they realize our people need help?” To which Lowery responded, “Not in the way that people in Zimbabwe do, lady. Not even close.” It’s a shocking display of class based disdain. As if a paraplegic can’t complain so long as there are quadriplegics in the world. And as Loomis points out, it shows that they approach the problem of poverty “from 30,000 feet.” They have no connections to these people, just as their analyse of Uber is all about them getting more convenience in their urbane lives and not about struggling low-middle class drivers.

Jeff Spross at The Week provided a far more expansive view of the issue, Us against them? Why Globalization Doesn’t Have to Pit American Workers Against the World’s Poor. Basically, he’s making a Dean Baker kind of argument: globalization hurts the poor in America because our government has made it that way; we can have globalization that works for everyone. But what I want to focus on is Spross’ criticism of the “American preference for ‘absolute’ poverty measures.”

The reason I bring it up is because of this great lecture by Richard Wilkinson, where he looks at economic inequality. Between countries, inequality doesn’t seem to have much effect on broadly defined health measures. But it has a clear and large effect within countries. Clearly, this is a study only of advanced economies, and Zimbabwe is seriously messed up. But the idea that poor people in Mississippi should just shut up because other people are doing worse outside the country 10,000 miles away misses the whole point.

My takeaway from this is just how callous we all are. I don’t believe that the Vox crowd really cares any more about the people in Zimbabwe than they do the people in Mississippi. They certainly don’t have any experience with the people who are suffering there. But it is really the fact that having a callous disregard for the suffering in Mississippi and a deep concern for the suffering in Zimbabwe pushes their existing belief that globalization is a Good Thing™. All of the neoliberal data journalists should listen to Lowery’s own inadvertent wisdom, “The reality, you’ll be surprised to hear, is more complicated.”


After I wrote this, I noticed that the brilliant Matt Bruenig wrote, The Muddled Globalization Debate. He looks at the issue in an economic way and notes, “The fact that goods cost 10% less than they would in the alternative doesn’t help someone whose income is 30% less than the alternative.” It gets to the same issue, which is just that Lowery and company are clueless about the effects of globalization on actual people. They can wave a hand and say that there are things we could do to minimize the harm, but the fact remains that we don’t. It’s like I wrote earlier this year, No Trade Deals Until Our Economy Is Fixed. I’m not interested in trade deals even if they do increase GDP as long as the vast majority of the gains all go to the top.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

14 thoughts on “Data Journalists Don’t Know Anything About the Poor Anywhere

  1. Plus it lets them think of themselves as Good People (TM) because they care ever so much about the poor. That are far away and they don’t have to disturb their lives one bit about but at least they care. Truly they do.

    • It’s a very typical thing in the media! Remember all the calls for “shared sacrifice” in 2008 and 2009? It’s always about the middle class and the poor sharing in the sacrifice — not Washington pundits. It’s the same thing here. In fact, globalization is great for them: they get cheaper iPhones! To me it is like people who have “pet” snakes and feed fellow mammals to them (rats). Of course these people don’t care about the poor in Zimbabwe any more than they care about the poor in Mississippi.

      • I noticed that too. Everyone, except the rich and comfortable, had to be punished for the rich and comfortable’s mistakes. Lewis Black had a great response to the people complaining that the poor bought houses they could not afford “if someone offered me a house for next to no money, of course I would take it. If they don’t like what happened later, they should have known better then to offer it to me!”

        The banks had no requirement, none, to do it. The CRA specifically prohibited the banks from doing irresponsible lending. The Clinton modifications were geared towards a very specific kind of couple-new college grads with good paying jobs who did not have a lot of credit history. Private industry did what it always does-went insane with lust for money and then convinced their friends in the media that it was not the banks fault. No no, it was those mean ol’ Democrats saying to treat the poor with dignity.

        • This is a common thing. After the crisis, we learned that bankers were just helpless do-gooders. It was those individuals who are supposed to police their own loans. This is why when you are buying a house, the bank fills out an application to give you the money and you are required to go over the bank’s application to you and see if it is a good loan that you will be able to pay back.

          Of course, some people noticed what a ridiculous claim this was, so we got the argument that the government forced the poor bankers to give loans to poor people. It doesn’t much matter, the argument is always the same: poor bankers. Of course, on the other side: most people got into trouble not because their houses were under water, but because they lost their jobs.

          We’ve reached a bizarre state of things where bankers exist in a free-ish market — allowed to change lending terms as they like to adjust for risk. But whenever they lose money, we hear that it isn’t their fault. But the only think that bankers do is manage risk. That’s the entire job! There is no accountability for the rich. None.

          • I find it to be a good example of doublethink-bankers are both totally incompetent and powerless in the face of the poor/government while being utterly capable of running the world economy.

            Much like how a minority member of a minority party in a Chamber of Congress without a filibuster ability was somehow able to defeat the entire Bush Administration and their Congressional allies in reigning in Fannie and Freddie. That is not why they failed to do anything-they failed because they really had no interest in trying (even if Barney Frank had the institutional knowledge to defeat much of their goals.)

            • Yep. It’s just like with individuals. If you can’t admit to error, you never grow. Are you ready for another financial crisis?! I hope so, because it is coming. (Although I think it will be a while.)

              • Oh yes, we have fallen back into the boom bust cycles of the days before 1933. The differences now is we know what not to do already and we do have a precious few protections still in place despite Glass-Steagall being repealed.
                The main problem is of course the total lack of will to do anything from the voters to the politicians.
                I would be depressed about it but there are shiny new toys. (I am kidding of course.)

    • Thanks! I got kind of scattered when I was writing this. Toward the end, I felt kind of bad hammering on people who I mostly agree with. So there were a lot of last minute changes. I think I originally had her full article title with the link in there. I’m glad people are paying attention. Thanks again!

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