BY mENCKEN'S GHOST | FEBRUARY 29, 2012
877,000 reasons why you can’t believe the media
What would you say if you discovered that the media had ignored 877,000 stories about a major cause of people losing their houses and money in the housing collapse and Great Recession? Would you say that the media can’t be trusted?
Well, start saying it.
According to housing analyst Keith Jurow of the financial website Minyanville, 877,000 mortgages were refinanced in my home county of Maricopa County, Ariz., between 2004 and 2006. Most of this astonishing number was due to liens for home equity lines of credit (HELOC). Apparently, thousands of local residents took out one or more second loans on their homes to buy granite counter tops, extended-cab pickup trucks, bass fishing boats, or whatever their lack of self-restraint compelled them to buy. Nationally, the figure has to be in the millions.
Such people are much more likely to be underwater on their mortgages, to have walked away from their homes, or to have defaulted on their mortgages and are living in their former homes rent-free during the foreclosure process, which can take years in some states.
Yet both the local and national establishment media have run few, if any, stories about these borrowers--about their financial irresponsibility and lack of self-restraint, or about how much of the stuff they bought is actually being paid by their fellow Americans through taxpayer-funded bank bailouts and mortgage relief programs. However, there have been incessant stories--many well-deserved--about big, bad, greedy banks duping innocent victims to take out mortgages they couldn’t afford.
This distorted coverage isn’t the result of a leftist media bias. Conservative media follow the same shopworn script in writing news stories, especially human-interest ones. According to the tired script, the masses of common folk are always victims of big corporations and the rich and powerful and the one percent, but they can never be victimizers themselves. That’s why you don’t see a storyline like this:
Bob McCarthy feels like a chump and is angry about it. Having always lived below his means, he has been able to build a sizable nest egg from his modest income as an auto mechanic. But he sees other working-class people who live the high life on borrowed money and then walk away from their debts and stick taxpayers like him with the bill.
“I drive a ten-year-old beater to work everyday and take my lunch in a paper sack,” said Mr. McCarthy. “A guy in my neighborhood drives a $45,000 truck with chrome wheels, gambles at the casino every weekend, and is living rent-free in his house that is going through foreclosure. Yet I have to hear about everything the government is doing to help the guy with my money,” he lamented.
Nor will you see a similar a storyline about any of the 65 million Americans who are now on disability. Although many of them are gaming the Social Security disability system by feigning disabilities, eager-beaver reporters and editors are apparently unable to find one of them to interview and identify and embarrass in an expose. Similarly, they are unable to go to the local unemployment or welfare office and find grossly overweight people who pull up in expensive cars, are yakking on the latest Smartphones with unlimited calling plans, have a brood of children by multiple mates, and are totally undeserving of other people’s money.
What explains the lack of such stories?
I could offer intellectual hypotheses about how the prevailing mindsets in journalism schools and newsrooms came about, but a more prosaic answer is probably the best answer: Media outlets are in business to make money and thus don’t want to upset their customers – their readers and viewers – large numbers of whom are in dire straits because of their own lack of self-restraint and would become angry if the truth were told.
Of course it’s the same with politicians and with other institutions, including K-12 schools and universities. It’s better for them if they don’t put the blame for society’s ills on where much of it belongs: on the irresponsible behavior of their voters and customers. It’s much safer to blame nebulous banks or capitalism or the Chinese or the rich.
The problem with this reticence to tell the whole story is that it leads to a change in social mores. Virtuous behavior gives way to non-virtuous behavior because society’s major institutions are no longer willing to praise the former and criticize the latter. Then, in a vicious circle, the more people there are with non-virtuous behavior, the more that the institutions are afraid to talk about it. Eventually, the culture reaches a tipping point where non-virtuous behavior becomes the norm.
Have we reached that point?
Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.