Debating Poverty At The United Nations: Do The Media Hate The Poor?

United Nations, New York: One is always proud to be invited to speak at the United Nations, one of the few global institutions that is still taken seriously, and that can generate international resolutions and shape programs free of total domination by the big powers.  

When you are an outsider like I am, it’s a bit of an ego boost to think that the world might be listening to little old you, and that, at least for one session, you are among the chosen to hold forth on something serious in what critics deride as ‘The House of Babble.’

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I have been around the world body for years, even as recipient of a prize for a TV documentary from the UN Correspondents Association  (UNCA). In that case, the film offered a strong critique of the UN cockup in Bosnia, but then, the award was presented to me by the then (and sixth) UN  Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali, who clearly hadn’t seen it

So, yes there is pretense and hypocrisy,  but there are also sincere and dedicated people—diplomats and international civil servents– working to improve the world.

This is not to say that the big powers lack influence there since they control the Security Council and show clout by lobbying for their political positions, while staffing the Secretariat and agencies with their loyalists.

Right across the street is the spanking new US Mission, a symbol of Washington’s power and intent to stay in control.

While The UN was created in the name of the peoples of the world, it is the governments with all their rigidities, personalities and ideologies that effectively run the place with some autonomy left for UN officials and decisionmakers like the current man at the top, South Korea’s Ban Ki Moon.

Nevertheless, an allowance has been made to give a platform to citizen’s movements and Non-Government groups who used to meet in the basement or in the rarely utilized Trusteeship Council set up decades ago to speed decolonization.

They were always a sideshow,  but attracted activists with a calling to try to change the world.

Now, with the Headquarters undergoing an expensive renovation, in part to get rid of toxic asbestos that made it an unsafe workplace,  much of the action,including the small conference room in which I spoke, has moved to a temporary all white structure built on the grounds. Its satirical nickname: “Bantanamo.”

I was invited to speak by an impressive lawyer, Nigerian born but UK trained, Ugoji Adanma Eze. We met a week earlier at a Bar Association talk I gave on Mandela and she liked my spunk or something, and invited me to take part. But then, when I sought to back out because of all the bureaucratic hassles involved in getting accreditation, she cut some red tape and escorted me in. Ugogji is a force of nature—and not to be crossed!

It was the 52nd Session of the Commission for Social Development. The focus of this side event was finding a “new paradigm for poverty eradication and environmental resource management.”  How’s that for heady title?

Unfortunately after two UN diplomats spoke at length, as well as a representative of the UN Environmental Program, there was no real time for me to deliver my hastily prepared but solidly documented treatise on the subject I assigned myself: “Why Does The Media Hate The Poor?”

I had prepared some remarks that I thought might provoke debate by arguing for the importance of advocating for poverty alleviation in the Cultural Environment, not just the physical environment. And, I hoped to discuss how the media has, because of its indifference and self-importance, made it harder for changemakers to attract the resources needed to fight poverty and promote sustainable development.

Here’s how I started:

“As we meet in this winter of too much snow and too little inspiration, it is heartening that at least in this room and among NGO’s big and small, the war on poverty soldiers on—however inadequately resourced, and neglected by the powers that be and those who should know better, except rhetorically of course.”

I droned on:

“This has been the year that the term inequality is finally being heard—at least in this city—but as a journalist and media analyst, i know all too well that when an issue is not on TV, it doesn’t exist for millions of Americans whose notion of what’s real is shaped by a news system more engaged, at this moment, with ski competitions in Sochi or the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony, with the pricey gowns and dazzling jewelry we hungrily await on the red carpet of stardom….

This week, New York’s cable company, TimeWarner. went on the block for $45 billion to the more conservative commissars of Comcast, assuring even more media concentration, and if the deal goes through,  there will, for sure, be even more money flowing upward to the one percent of the one percent.

Our media will remain dominated by the weighty and deceptive thoughts of the rich and powerful,  while the voices of the poor and anonymous remain treated only as consumers who are paying more than ever for less and less and kept on the sidelines.

As media moguls enrich themselves, the issues that this gathering plans to address moves more and more to the margins. Unfortunately, the UN is better at holding talkfests like this than in assuring that the public will hear about them.”

Here’s the journalist Dave Smith writing in Texas:

“It is not difficult to see global poverty issues are largely absent from news tickers and the national media outlets where many Americans get their news, leaving the poor around the world out of the proverbial conversation…

With the passing of the latest national election season, the media coverage focused mostly on the American economy and jobs, but paid little attention to real American poverty beyond sound bites and talking points.  Global poverty issues were even more of an afterthought, which is confusing when considering the connection between global poverty solutions, national security policy and the national economy.”

I was then prepared to cite many studies of how the subject of poverty has disappeared from much of the mainstream the way human rights activists used to “disappear” in Argentina after the military goons took power. I was overloaded with over researched facts and quotes but, alas, I had already run out of time before I even began.

My moment in the UN sun was suddenly clouded by the reality of a forum with more speakers than time to hear them all.

Happily, there were some folks there who are engaged in the poverty fight every day.

Members of a Mennonite mission based on Sugar Hill in Harlem spoke of their work as volunteers in overwhelmed food pantries in New York, and showcased their religious devotion with an upbeat hymn. Their sincerity and sense of sacrifice was evident. It was a small group—some from Kansas and Mississippi, but all devoted to a big idea–serving their God and the poor with unpaid community service.

Perhaps, the most impressive and passionate advocate in the room.  was Aaron Campbell, an articulate Philadelphia-based minister who runs the Angoon Alive Project in Alaska where Native Americans are getting help with sustainable entrepreneurial employment projects, aided by micro-loans.

He showed slides detailing the extreme and obscene poverty on Native American reservations like Pine Ridge in South Dakota with a growing suicide rate and rampant social problems that just go on. Everyone was impressed with his commitment to his people and to waking the rest of us about their plight.

It was a small forum in a small room on a windy winter day overlooking what they used to call Turtle Bay and today is known only as the East River. We were all driven by some sense of duty to making this issue matter, and to show that there are solutions out there if anyone is listening. We each spoke of the world’s failure to respond. I tried to ring a bell about media myopia.

These exercises go on every day—at least someone is trying to make a difference.  Writing, in of all places, the Financial Times, a capitalist tool if there ever was one, Simon Kupfer noted:

“You’d have thought the economic crisis would have made poverty newsy. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a journalistic maxim, and the Cambridge sociologist David Stuckler found sharp increases in suicides in recession-hit European countries after 2008. The crisis arguably caused 1,000 “excess” suicides in England alone.

But they weren’t news. The global poor – 2.5 billion people living on less than $2 a day – are considered even more boring, due to the triple whammy of being non-white, non-Anglophone and poor. To become news, poor people have to cause disorder. Middle-class people raise issues by writing; poor people do it by rioting.”

Will it have to come to that? What else is to be done?

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at Newsdissector.net and edits  Mediachannel.org. His latest book is Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela (Madibabook.com).  Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org.

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  • American Cannibal

    Disinfo MOD go suck a tailpipe! Look what you did! Look how you messed up an amazing thread — seriously, KILL YOURSELF! You are a waste of brain power and man-meat.

    http://disinfo.com/2014/02/coming-backlash-silicon-valley/#comment-1245054344

    • Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness

      Dude, Matt is awesome and really nice. He totally doesn’t deserve your shitty vitriol over , of all things, enforcing the blog rules which is his job, which he excels at. He might not even ban you for being such an immense douche, not my call, nor would it be. But that’s what a sweet guy he is.

      I’ve seen enough of your posts to know your a clever fellow, but your perpetual combatantcy suggests you’re not keen on some wisdom I’ll share with you currently. First of all, nothing in this plane of existence is permanent. And attachment, even to beautiful things is a source of suffering. Also, you are not in control of anything. Least of all other people. And least of all when it comes to the property of others(as here). I invite you to start your own shitty blog, so you can leave your vulgar spewings there.

      • American Cannibal

        Take your private property rights BS and shove off.

      • American Cannibal

        And please, don’t give me that Saint Matt Crap. He’s uses the N-Word quite liberally. Do nice and awesome people use the N-Word, Bluebirdy? I don’t think so.

        • Matt Staggs

          Eh. Never mind. I just checked your comment history. Garden variety troll. I’ll show you the door.

          • American Cannibal

            Troll is a compliment! Thank you!

            But, as you know, when you strip out the context, you strip out the meaning, Matt. You should know better than to only look at isolated comments sans the larger context. Also, my name is Matt, which my dickhole boss revealed to everyone yesterday. He’s suck a jerk, can’t take a joke. But I digress.

          • Jonas Planck

            I wouldn’t say “garden variety…” This one is remarkably agenda-free… A rare quality in this day and age.

          • Jin The Ninja

            i don’t condone his comments of the last few days, but he really did have some intelligent and witty things to say. probably doesn’t deserve banishment.

          • echar

            I think he should send in a production of him performing an interpretive dance on the theme of semi sarcastic yet authentically sincere apologies, minus middle fingers.

            The musical accompaniment shall be Hush by Tool. And he will wear a mime outfit.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EF_WKwbueG8

            There must be elements of tap dancing, krumping, ballet, line dancing, and the can can.

    • Matt Staggs

      Help me out here: What did I mess up? I really try to be hands-off on the comments unless I have to be. I haven’t deleted anything off of that thread, but I’m not the only guy here. Let me know and I’ll see what I can find out.

      • American Cannibal

        Hey Matt. Thanks for taking time to address this issue. My boss is really, really ticked off about this here story I was suppose to send him on Wednesday, etc. Anyway, now I’m stuck because we had this public fight yesterday and he’s going to take the facebook post and bring it to the EIC as evidence of me goofing off instead of writing about my trip to Augusta. Not your problem, obvi. But, here’s the thing, without my dickhead boss’ rude rantings on the post, I’m gonna look really, really bad, even though Lewis loves me. They want a confrence call on Monday to discuss the ongoing issues (I can’t believe it, on a holiday no less). See, I”m gonna look like an idiot without my bosses deleted comments – they’re gonna fire me or send me to Washington to report on politician escorts. I hate DC. But if John’s comments are reinstated, then he’s gonna look like the real bad guy here, and he deserves it. Trust me. He’s a total douche. Please help me out, do a solid. Please reinstate John123485882’s comments (he’s has ZERO creativity – what a stupid name for a avatar!!), so I can bust his ass and embarrass him infront of the EIC (again). Hear what I”m saying? Without evidence against him I”m gonna get fired! And then how am I suppose to keep up appearances? I need this job to convince strangers that I’m not rich. You understand. Thanks for helping out and keeping an open mind about this. Love, AC.

    • Liam_McGonagle

      C’est la guerre.

      I get a bit miffed at arbitrary moderation from time to time, so I don’t doubt your disappointment for a second.

      But that said, Matt is remarkably easy going and only intervenes in rare cases. The range of options open to him are probably pretty blunt, but I don’t think he does so unless he REALLY feels the call.

      Anyway, life goes on and whatnot. Don’t put everything on #23 Red.

      • American Cannibal

        More laffs on the way! Wait till next week when my mother shows up to break the news she’s divorcing my father to marry his brother! They’re 75 years old, gross!!

  • Liam_McGonagle

    It’s about access journalism.

    Organizations are larger than ever and they’re expected to respond on a timeline commensurate with the speed of modern telecommunications. The inevitable outcome being that unless you want to commit career suicide you DO NOT:

    1. Waste the time of powerful people trying to press issues that they do not care about

    2. Show yourself to be a moron by challenging the priorities of powerful people

    I’m not sure the media actively hate the poor as much as regard them as an irrelevant distraction.

  • Jonas Planck

    To underscore the author’s point, I was stuck listening to Fox News for a few hours yesterday, and the way they “reported” on the U.N. summit was a single instance of an anchor stating as “fact” (without revealing that it was just “opinion,” as they say when an outside agency confronts them with their own words) that the U.N. was a terrorist organization that was founded for the specific purpose of destroying America itself, and any mention of “poverty” by them is merely a smoke-screen to conceal their ultimate goals. Though those goals are not specifically enumerated, we are left to presume that they involve murdering Jesus, stealing everyone’s money, and forcing us all to marry gay men. And drowning cute puppies, because they hate goodness.
    It’s not just that our owners refuse to act to mitigate the downward spiral they’ve created, it’s that they refuse to allow anyone to even DISCUSS its existence without directing blame for it at a political or economic foe. From this behavior, I can presume that the “why” of it is the exploitation of poverty for political ends… The more desperate people are to ensure their own survival, the easier they are to AIM like weapons at whatever target you place in front of them. To our owners, the acquisition of wealth for themselves is a secondary concern to the main goal of stripping wealth FROM the people at large. This creates the conditions that allow fascism to thrive, and as we know, our owners are largely ignorant of the historical fact that fascism always fails. Sure, it makes for a nice boogeyman, but SURELY THIS TIME our fascistic dictatorship will succeed, because not only do we not CALL it fascism, but we have reality TV! Would a tyrannical corporate state have reality TV? Of course not! More Huxley than Orwell, dontcha know!

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