| November 4, 2013

The forgotten source

Commenting on the liberal bias of the Associated Press, former University of Texas journalism professor Marvin Olasky suggested that we “think of it algebraically, with AP standing for coverage of person A, who has a problem, and person P, the politician who purports to have a solution. The Associated Press typically did not bother to cover person F, the one paying taxes so that person P can gain glory for sending aid to person A. In the nineteenth century, Yale professor William Graham Sumner had offered a similar equation and called person F ‘the forgotten man.’ In the twenty-first century, AP regularly broke its pledge to be evenhanded by highlighting person A and forgetting Mr. F.”

It’s not just the AP. Each new day brings examples from media outlets nationwide of news stories from which person F is conspicuously absent. For example, in a recent Tulsa World story (‘Impasse may endanger aid funds’), we learn that

Half of the infants in Oklahoma could be at risk of losing a vital supplemental nutrition program if the federal government shutdown continues beyond this month, state officials said Friday. That’s when the state’s allotment of federal funding for the Women Infants and Children nutrition program (WIC) could run out, said officials with the Oklahoma Department of Health, which administers the program. About 22,000 Oklahoma infants — or more than half in the entire state — receive WIC assistance, officials said. …

For Brittany Wilkerson, who attends school at the Margaret Hudson Program Tulsa campus, she said it would be “just horrible,” if funding ran out for the program, which she utilizes to feed her two children. Wilkerson, 18, said she uses the program to purchase baby formula for her newborn and juice and other foods for her 1-year-old. The cost of the formula alone is about $120 a month, Wilkerson said. “I could not afford to buy it if they took it away,” she said referring to the program.

In the 663-word story the reporter quoted person A and several proxies for person P, but person F was nowhere to be found. Person F was the forgotten source. Had he been included, the story would have been more evenhanded, more informative, and — most important of all — more interesting for the newspaper’s actual customers. In a metropolitan area where (according to the Tulsa World’s own pollster) conservatives outnumber liberals 7 to 1, one can imagine Person F’s contribution to the story:

“I don’t mind helping people who are down on their luck,” said John Q. Taxpayer, a Tulsa welder. “In fact, I pay my taxes and still give to folks in need whenever I can. But shouldn’t the babies’ father help buy some groceries for these children that he helped bring into the world? Or heck, couldn’t the grandparents or other family members pitch in? I mean, I don’t see why it’s up to complete strangers to come up with $120 a month. I’ve got my own bills to pay. My wife’s got past-due medical bills and my kids need school clothes.”

Mr. Taxpayer also expressed concern with the nation’s $17 trillion debt. “I’m all for helping to feed babies,” he said, “but I don’t want to put it on the credit card of my own babies and grandbabies. We just can’t afford to keep doing all this welfare.”

I don’t believe media bias is always nefarious, or even intentional. Just as a fish doesn’t swim around all day wondering how he can manage to stay wet, reporters don’t wake up every morning asking themselves how they can construct narrative frameworks that ignore the taxpayer. A fish doesn’t realize he’s wet, and many journalists don’t realize that their J-school training and subsequent existence in a center-left newsroom bubble have conditioned them to ignore person F.

He’s out there. Yes, the Forgotten Man is “the real subject which deserves our attention,” as Sumner said. “He works, he votes, generally he prays — but he always pays — yes, above all, he pays.” Reporters should talk to him.

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