How the Media Covers the Poor Follows America's Treatment of the Poor

Was the man who burned to death trying to stay warm in Queensgate, William Floyd, another throwaway Cincinnatian? Had he died in a house fire in a better neighborhood, we probably would have learned about his family, his education, trade or profession, h

Dec 7, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Was the man who burned to death trying to stay warm in Queensgate another throwaway Cincinnatian?

We know his name: William Floyd. Maybe he wasn’t homeless. He shared an encampment near the Sixth Street Viaduct and Mehring Way and had a shelter of sorts, albeit without a roof. That might have been home.

Had he died in a house fire in a better neighborhood, we probably would have learned about his family, his education, trade or profession, his military service, health/mental problems, possible addictions or alcoholism and funeral/burial plans. We might even have learned what bank was accepting donations for his funeral.

[Thanks to Kevin Osborne's Dec. 2 blog post on, I do know some of that information now about Floyd.]

Did Floyd’s story die with him because he was not among the worthy poor? After all, police said he’d been drinking. Maybe he didn’t want to move to shelter and other options weren’t available.

So he might have been among the Cincinnatians sleeping under viaducts and along riverbanks to whom do-gooders bring blankets and food. That makes donors feel good, but their gifts might not be a good idea. To find out why, read Greg Flannery’s savvy tread along the blurry line between enabling and helping in the Nov. 1-14 Streetvibes, published biweekly by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and sold by homeless and other low-income Cincinnatians for $1.

Coping with homelessness is nothing new. Defining it is another problem. We have Cincinnatians without fixed addresses but who sleep rough rather than go into shelters. That choice — whether reasoned or addled by mental illness or addictions — will kill some, whether in fires or frigid conditions. Streetvibes’ sponsor is one of the local groups trying to help, and there is no unanimity on what “help” comprises. That’s part of the problem as we deal with symptoms of causes that seem too intractable.

A longer view comes from historian Michael Katz in an interview on Minnesota Public Radio. There was no welfare system in the mid-1800s, only "outdoor relief." If local elected officials thought a person really needed help, they'd dole out a few dollars for food or shelter. The system was confusing and expensive, so governments established poorhouses patterned after the almshouse of Elizabethan England.

The idea was simple — discourage people from asking for help by forcing them to work for food and shelter — and it was an abject failure, Katz said. "It didn't cut down on outdoor relief. Outdoor relief kept growing. Second thing is they were incredibly expensive. It cost far more to keep somebody in one of these poorhouses than to help them with a little bit of food or shelter. Third, it proved impossible to put the inmates to work" because many were at the poorhouse because they couldn't work.

Attitudes toward the poor haven't changed much, and Katz sees shadows of the poorhouse and hears echoes of the thinking that created poorhouses. They were catchalls for anyone who was down and out, a lot like homeless shelters today, he said. In the 1800s, counties tried to separate the "worthy poor" from the "unworthy." They used those very words. Orphans were "worthy," so Americans built orphanages. Then we built asylums for the mentally ill. Poorhouses became places for old people.

Katz says it's still hard to agree who deserves help and who doesn't. He says it's easier for poor people to find food and shelter and medical care than it was 100 years ago, but there's a still a strong tendency to blame them for being poor.

Curmudgeon Notes

• News media love photos of shapely women in stories about airport patdowns, but how often do you see a TSA agent groping a scrotum (the “junk” of protest fame) for something explosive. Do they really say “turn your head and cough”?

• Watching Fox News is like reading Gullible’s Travels. I’m grateful to Jason Haap at for leading me to the latest Fox howler: mistaking satire on for news and posting it on as the real thing. Both reported that Obama sent a rambling, self-absorbed 75,000 word, 27-megabyte message to Americans with email. It clearly was a joke.

Fox eventually took down the story and comments. That didn’t “unpublish” it online, and the only thing funnier or scarier than Fox’s malign eagerness to embarrass the president were credulous Fox Nation readers’ comments.

I haven’t seen a Fox Nation correction, and my email asking Fox where to find a correction elicited no response. That’s dishonest. Fox failed to pursue a basic journalistic ethical standard: verify. That’s no loathed mainstream media shibboleth. Even the wingnuts’ idol Reagan embraced it: “Trust, but verify.” Of course, Reagan never would have mistaken The Onion for fair and balanced news.

• We’ve all had those moments, as in, “What day is this?” That confusion struck The Enquirer recently when its web site reported that the same accident closed I-74 westbound exits early Tuesday and early Wednesday. If there is anything to be learned, it’s the risk of rushing stories and/or photos with cutlines online without editing.

• Bill Sloat’s points out that Noah’s Ark projected theme park in Northern Kentucky probably wouldn’t hire Noah; he’s not a Christian. Hell, he’s not even a Jew. If ark park is built, in part with public money, this monument to the biblical Flood Story would complement the nearby and similarly literal Creation Museum with its overtly Christian mission. That, of course, also could pose an employment problem for Jesus at either Christian theme park: He lived and died a believing Jew.

• Wondering about Noah’s reputation at the hands of local biblical literalists, I asked a scholarly friend, “Who was the first Jew?” Here’s the response: “I doubt there is a consensus on this subject. It depends on how one defines ‘Jew’ or ‘Israelite.’ Even by literal Biblical standards, as no doubt observed by the Creation Museum, certainly not Noah. Jews or Israelites according to the Bible are descendants of Shem, one of the sons of Noah. From his name we get the terms Semite and Semitic. Israel or Israelites as a person or a people do not exist until Jacob, grandson of Abraham, wrestles with the angel and is given the name Israel (Yisrael). Unless one means a child or descendant of Judah, son of Jacob, there were technically speaking no Jews until the establishment of the Kingdom of Judah after the death of Solomon, or more likely until the Greco-Roman period (i.e. the Roman province of Judaea). So, to whom goes the honor? In terms of faith or religion, perhaps Abraham. In terms of peoplehood, how about Moses? Nationally, I suppose it's anyone's guess.”

• We’re generations past a statesman’s pious “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” I make that point, because you’ve probably read/heard more than you want about a quarter million sometimes not-so-diplomatic but wholly credible State Department cables given to and shared by WikiLeaks. What do I learn?

First, The New York Times asked federal officials whether any of those cables it wanted to publish threatened national security. Where editors and officials agreed, material was deleted before The Times used it in stories or posted it on the web. Where there was disagreement, The Times followed its own judgment. It’s a lot more independent than other branches of government.

Second, if WikiLeaks, London’s Guardian and others were putting the cables on the Internet, it wasn’t Times reporting that compromised national security or diplomatic success. The Times’ role in WikiLeaks recalls the New Yorker expose of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and our “secret” bombing of Laos during the Viet Nam war. Iraqis knew about Americans torturing prisoners in Baghdad and Laotians knew who was bombing them. Only Americans weren’t supposed to know what was being done to win the hearts and minds of people who hadn’t attacked us.

Third, if State Department/Pentagon encrypted computers are so easily compromised, nothing can be considered private. That’s the big story, the obvious inference from all the news about WikiLeaks. Story after story about filched emails and cables should embarrass IT mavens who assure us something we put on the Internet is secure. That means medical, credit and tax records, bank and brokerage accounts, email and Internet browsing. So forget privacy. The only protection any of us has is that we are too boring.

Fourth, the ease with which classified and secret State Department cables — and before that, supposedly classified Pentagon emails — were obtained is only a step removed from government officials losing loaded laptops and memory sticks. Those stories never seem to end. Nothing is secure from hackers, spies or official stupidity.

Fifth, the cables show that our diplomats are pretty savvy, and if foreign policy is fucked don’t blame them. It was the Oval Office that blew it, regardless of occupant. Just as everyone spies on everyone, we have to assume that everyone’s diplomats, unless they’re too stupid to walk and chew gum at the same time, send home candid cables/emails on what they see, hear and learn.

Sixth, don’t blame the news media if our demonstrable inability to protect foreign sources will make our diplomats’ jobs harder. As Hillary Clinton told reporters, "I can tell you that in my conversations, at least one of my counterparts said to me, 'Well don't worry about it, you should see what we say about you.'"

Finally, Interpol was enlisted in retaliation against WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Paul Assange. Interpol issued a warrant for his arrest. How many times does someone make the worldwide most-wanted list for two alleged sexual assaults? Even Roman Polanski, who skipped sentencing after admitting unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, lived openly in Europe without fear of an Interpol warrant. Interpol’s decision seems to be part of the orchestrated attack on WikiLeaks: Servers are attacked and shut down and PayPal won’t accept donations for WikiLeaks as part of the effort to starve it into extinction. Here’s my conspiratorial suggestion: All of this is to protect American banks and industries from anticipated WikiLeaks about them, rather than retribution for revealing Pentagon and State Department communications.

• This from Jason Linkins at Former BP chief executive Tony Hayward says the media response to the oil spill was a “feeding frenzy” and BP was “not prepared” to deal with “the intensity of the media scrutiny.” Not true, Linkins wrote.

* BP went to great lengths to prevent reporters from documenting the effects of the oil spill on wildlife.

* BP ignored National Incident Commander Thad Allen’s orders and went to great lengths to prevent reporters from talking to beachside clean-up crews.

* BP went to great lengths to prevent reporters from documenting the public health impact of the oil spill.

* BP enlisted local police in its media clampdown. Journalists were hassled and detained and threatened with fines and jail time.

* BP sent its PR people to the region, and they started blogging about what an awesome and responsible company BP was.

* BP got a big assist when the White House ignored the pleas of the Associated Press' Michael Oreskes, who wrote a letter to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs "demanding that President Barack Obama's administration improve media access."

• Did anyone hear wingnuts correct themselves on phony accusations about the cost of President Obama’s trip to Asia? This goes beyond easily aroused conservative willingness to believe anything they can turn against Obama. Conservative commentators and Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann bared their teeth and went for the (rotten) meat even though the spurious claims couldn’t pass the sniff test.

This stinker began when the Press Trust of India distributed an anonymously sourced pre-departure assertion that Obama’s 10-day trip to Asia would cost $2 billion and require 34 U.S. Navy ships for support. Although absurd, this gave American rightwing cable and radio ranters a field day. Anderson Cooper’s daily podcast, AC 360, called the critics to account, saying, in part, that Americans audiences should know how wrong and stupid this figures sound: Our war in Afghanistan only costs $190 million a day and doesn’t require 10 percent of our Navy.

• Everything in court documents is public, however revealing, offensive or embarrassing. For instance, Fox News’ response to a federal government lawsuit stated the cable network’s salary scale. ”The top end of Fox’s pay scale for D.C.-based reporters was $460,000 in 2008,” according to No wonder Fox News reporters and commentators unblushingly promote retention of Bush tax breaks for the wealthy.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]