In an early installment of the New York Times’ recently concluded 11-part “Class Matters” series, reporter Janny Scott describes social class as “that elusive combination of income, education, occupation and wealth.” With such an encompassing definition of class at their disposal, what American topic couldn’t Times journalists shoehorn into their series? Obviously, a feature about status displays on Nantucket, where the rich vie with the hyper-rich, qualifies as a class piece, but isn’t a piece about the evangelical community’s goal to take over the Ivy League a major stretch?
Likewise, is class really at the center of the story about a family that’s moved three times in 10 years in service of the breadwinner’s career? In another piece, an upper-middle-class man suffers a heart attack and changes his diet and lifestyle, per doctor’s orders. We learn that he recovers better than either a middle-class Con Ed worker, who half-heartedly follows his doctor’s advice, or a Polish immigrant, who disregards her physician’s advice. This tells us more about patients who listen to their doctors than it does about how class is lived in America. If the comparison of a legal immigrant to his illegal employee is a valid illustration of class divisions in America, would a similar one between a law-abiding citizen and a felon on the lam also fit the Times mix? The shifting status markers report makes for good reading, but aren’t those sands always in motion? Had Times editors run the 3,000-word piece at half that length, as did their colleagues at the International Herald Tribune, it would have easily fit in a Times’ Sunday Styles section package about what’s in and what’s out.
This isn’t to say that none of the Times articles engage class directly. The pieces about the wealthy middle-aged Jewish woman who marries a middle-aged Catholic car salesman; the teen mom on welfare who becomes a registered nurse; the college dropout who dreams of returning to school; income gains at the top of the money pyramid; the woman who grew up poor in an Appalachian holler but made good as a lawyer; and the factory supervisor rust-belted out of his high-paying job all make credible runs at the topic.
The series overview (May 15), by Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, subtracts from the clarity these pieces offer. They claim that Americans may once have thought they understood class, but that today the concept manifests itself in “indistinct, ambiguous” ways. It is the “half-seen hand that upon closer examination holds some Americans down while giving others a boost.”
The idea that class is vague and amorphous, a shadow on the fog, is something you encounter only in newspaper series like this and in ninth-grade civics textbooks. The signs of class so supersaturate American life that every burger-flipper, dietician, bail bondsman, university professor, and commodities trader must keep a running mental log of the social demarcations to survive. Who among us doesn’t make mental notes upon meeting someone for the first time about what he’s wearing, his accent and vocabulary, and his social manners? And that’s just for starters. Every attempt by the Times to mystify the topic falls flat, such as this sentence in the overview: “The trends are broad and seemingly contradictory: the blurring of the landscape of class and the simultaneous hardening of certain class lines; the rise in standards of living while most people remain moored in their relative places.”
Writing in the Boston Phoenix, Chris Lehmann takes the angry end of his claw hammer to not just the series but the newspaper. “Social class is at the core of the Times’ institutional identity, which prevents the paper from offering the sort of dispassionate, critically searching discussion the subject demands,” he writes. The paper’s reporters didn’t need to travel the country to document class in America, Lehmann growls. All it had to do was investigate its own pages where class lines are delineated every day, covertly in hard-news coverage and overtly in the “Dining In,” “House & Home,” its “Styles” sections, the glossy “T: Style” Sunday supplement, and, of course, the “Vows” section in which the wedding contracts of the ruling class are published.
“Getting the New York Times to explain the real operation of social class in America is, at the end of the day, a lot like granting your parents exclusive license to explain sex to you: there are simply far too many conflicts that run far too deep to result in any reliable account of how the thing works,” Lehmann writes.
The Wall Street Journal plots a less ambitious approach to the topic with its “Moving Up: Challenges to the American Dream” series, which commenced on May 13, concentrating primarily on economic mobility. In the kick-off piece, David Wessel asserts that the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1970, and that economic class mobility has stalled. Yet he serves up a pair of caveats that place a cloud over the whole project. Researchers depend almost entirely on two sets of prosperity data, both inaugurated in the late 1960s, that don’t record the recent immigrants or their offspring, “many of whom have seen extraordinary upward mobility.”
The second, almost a throwaway, notes that a rise in net income isn’t the only determiner of whether you’ve moved up. “People today enjoy services—cellphones, cancer treatment, the Internet—that their parents and grandparents never had,” Wessel writes.
The list needn’t stop there. A whole array of new technologies, many of which we now take for granted, are rarely included in discussions of well-being and class mobility because their affordability have increased absolute prosperity but not relative prosperity. In other words, because so many of us can afford the latest generation of maintenance-free automobiles, none of us feels the emotional ping of having moved up when we buy one. Other examples of goods that make our lives better but don’t convey a sense of having moved up: satellite radio and television; GPS and mapping technologies; advances in dental science; Lasik eye surgery; fertility treatments; digital cameras and audio; nationwide distribution of the New York Times; DVDs and HD television; safe autos; fresh fruits and vegetables year round, including bagged greens; accurate weather forecasting; new medical diagnostic technologies; wonder drugs; not to mention the Super Soaker line of squirt guns.
The late Herbert Stein essayed on the relativity of wealth in 1996 for the Journal editorial page in an article titled “Am I Better Off?” The peg for his piece was Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign, in which he echoed the query candidate Ronald Reagan put to voters in 1980.
“I not only don’t know the answer; I don’t even understand the question,” the economist wrote. “Is the question one about the facts or about the feeling—whether I feel better than I felt four years ago or whether I really am better off?”
Lives are in such flux over any two points in time—one ages, marries, divorces, spawns, changes jobs, gets sick, gets sicker, gets well, moves to a new climate, etc.—that it’s maddeningly complex to determine whether one’s stock is up or down. If a wife or her husband quits work to take care of the kids, have they improved or worsened their lot? If an 18-year-old loads up on debt to attend college, is he moving up or down? If you’re in a two-income family but afford a weekly maid and plenty of nights dining out, are you worse off than your parents, only one of whom worked, and who had no domestic help? No consumer price index, academic data, and statistical tool known to man can crack these nuts.
The country may be going to hell on our credit cards, and we may be destined to devolve into a caste system where only the children of the rich succeed. My mind remains open. But thanks to the insights of a couple of friends, I picked up on a subtext that I think drives both series.
Journalists are notoriously sensitive to matters of class and status, especially a New York journalist with a $125,000 salary that might make him an object of envy to a reporter living in Lansing, Mich., but that stigmatizes him as a knuckle-dragging proletarian on his home turf. Rising housing prices, high taxes, pressures to enroll children in private schools and dress fashionably, et al., contribute to a permanent state of status anxiety in many New York-based Times and Journal reporters and editors. Financial journalists in New York have their noses rubbed into their relative pauperhood on a daily—sometimes hourly—basis by the lawyers, hedge-fund traders, business executives, and investment bankers they report on. If they’re blue about class in America, you can’t blame them.
But if, as I once wrote, all journalism is autobiography, you can criticize the Times and Journal for not turning the reportorial lens back on either themselves or somebody in their shoes (a Time magazine section editor, perhaps?) for at least one more installment to explain how class influenced their respective takes. I can see the headline now: “Class Matters: Zoloft Abuse at the New York Times.”
I’ll bet I’d be less cocky if I worked in New York. How about you? Send e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)