America: Who Stole the Dream

They scored big four years ago with "America: What Went Wrong?" Why has Barlett and Steele's followup report vanished almost without a trace?

By Dan Kennedy
Published December 2, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

four years ago Philadelphia Inquirer reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele's populist manifesto "America: What Went Wrong?" became something of a phenomenon. The book, an outgrowth of a 1991 Inquirer series, was a bestselling exposi of how the Reagan administration and Congress had screwed the working class on everything from taxes to job security. It was pushed by Bill Moyers and praised by Bill Clinton, and it even may have played a role in building support for the tax hike on the rich that squeaked through Congress in 1993.

But when Barlett and Steele's 10-part, 65,000-word follow-up, "America: Who Stole the Dream?", debuted in the Inquirer on September 8, the critics were waiting for them. This time, the two staged a more direct assault on economic and political orthodoxy, blaming free-trade agreements such as NAFTA and GATT, as well as uncontrolled immigration, for the disappearance of millions of manufacturing jobs that had once sustained the working class. The series, built upon reams of statistics, was backed up with the stories of ordinary Americans who'd lost their jobs when their companies shut down U.S. operations and opened new plants in low-wage, Third World countries.

"Who Stole the Dream?" didn't get any words of praise from Bill Clinton  or from many other commentators. "A twisted portrait of the economy," scoffed Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post and Newsweek. "Their anecdotes are interesting; their attempts at context are hilarious," sneered Holman Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal. The Seattle Times killed the series after the first installment; executive editor Michael Fancher called its premise "sweeping and provocative" but "unsubstantiated." And Christopher Caldwell, of the conservative Weekly Standard, charged that the series was little more than a sloppily conceived attempt by the Inquirer's Pulitzer-starved editors to use their marquee performers to bring home some much-needed gold.

You wouldn't think Barlett and Steele's work could be dismissed so easily. After all, it was less than a year ago that Pat Buchanan's pitchfork peasants were storming New Hampshire, capitalizing on middle- and working-class angst with a crude but powerful anti-immigration, anti-free-trade message. This past March, The New York Times published a landmark series on economic insecurity under the direction of managing editor Gene Roberts, the former Philadelphia Inquirer editor who first brought Barlett and Steele to prominence. And Newsweek weighed in with a rogues' gallery of downsizing corporate executives.

Certainly there's plenty of evidence of a crisis in working-class America. Inflation-adjusted wages, especially for people with no more than a high-school education, have been dropping since the early 1970s. The gap between rich and poor has been widening since the rise of Reaganomics, as Samuelson himself has acknowledged on other occasions. But with unemployment and inflation low, and with the media providing the drumbeat for Clinton's re-election claim that the economy was humming thanks to him, economic insecurity had nearly vanished as a political issue by the time Barlett and Steele were ready with their opus.

Thus, unlike its predecessor, "Who Stole the Dream?" seems to have disappeared without a trace. Steele tells me he's still hopeful that his work will have some effect: The book version (Andrews & McMeel, $9.95) is just hitting the bookstores, he notes, and some 40 newspapers across the country have run all or part of the series. " 'America: What Went Wrong?' was kind of in a class by itself," concedes Steele. "But this one has had  and continues to have  quite an impact in the markets where it's run."

Trouble is, unless a story gets repeated over and over in the New York-Washington media axis, the usual fate is for it to be quickly forgotten. Damaging as the criticism from Samuelson et al. may have been, the silence that greeted the release of the series  the lack of attention from the network news programs, the talking-heads shows, and the like  has probably been much more devastating.

"There's no echo chamber for this kind of reporting," says Jeff Cohen, executive director of the liberal media-watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). "There's no echo chamber for saying that hey, big business is ripping off the country. And part of the reason for that is that big business owns the echo chamber." Or, as Barlett himself put it in a recent interview on FAIR's nationally syndicated radio show, "CounterSpin": "Some editors are very uncomfortable with anything that challenges the status quo."

Where alternative channels of communication exist, it is possible to force the mainstream to take notice. Take the case of the San Jose Mercury News controversial series, "Dark Alliance," which posited a connection between the CIA and the introduction of crack in Los Angeles. The New York Times and the Washington Post, among others, whacked the Mercury for trying too hard to show a direct link between the CIA and the arrival of crack on the streets of Los Angeles. Clearly, though, the Mercury series demonstrated indifference on the part of the CIA toward the nefarious doings of its anti-Sandinista allies. And the story struck such a powerful chord in the black community that it spread nationwide via an alternative network of black-oriented talk shows and newspapers, forcing both the media and government officials to investigate.

There's no grassroots network akin to the black media to keep a story like "Who Stole the Dream?" alive. But the authors are making good use of a technology that didn't even exist when their "What Went Wrong?" was on the bestseller list: the World Wide Web. (It was the Web, after all, that transformed "Dark Alliance" from a series in a regional paper into an ongoing story available to black media outlets across the country.) The Philadelphia Inquirer has published an abbreviated version of "Who Stole the Dream?" on its Web site. That may give the story some long-term legs even if the book version fails to catch on.

Al Gore may have beaten Ross Perot in the great NAFTA debate on "Larry King Live!", but neither he nor anyone else has explained how American workers can compete against low-paid workers in countries with scant environmental and workplace-safety regulations. The reason they haven't, as Barlett and Steele make clear, is that they can't.

Though the debate may be over among the media and political elite, it rages on in the heartland  among blue-collar workers, union members and others whose lives have been seriously damaged by free-trade agreements. Barlett and Steele have done more than give voice to those workers' frustrations  they've demonstrated exactly how their interests were sold out. The question now is whether anyone will listen.

Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy is the media reporter for the Boston Phoenix.

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