Media rediscover the homeless

Posted: Feb 22, 2001 12:00 AM
You can tell a Republican lives in the White House. Remember how, during the Reagan-Bush era, the homeless problem in America dominated the news? Somehow during the Clinton years that national tragedy all but evaporated from our TV screens. Guess what? With a new Bush administration, and the pledge of Reaganesque tax cuts, the homeless problem miraculously has reappeared. ABC World News Tonight was the first to trumpet the rise in homelessness shortly after George W. Bush took office. On Feb. 11, ABC decreed that the homeless problem is a national epidemic. ABC actually blamed massive housing shortages on the "the long economic boom ... for causing rents to skyrocket." Would they have preferred the country not had an economic boom? The story claimed the problem is so bad in New York City that the number of homeless has risen "above 25,000 a night for the first time since the late 1980s." Uh-huh. So one month after the Democrats leave office the problem is suddenly as grave as it was during the dreaded Reagan years. How quaint. ABC used a homeless shelter in Illinois as its backdrop to show the rising tide of homelessness. The director of the shelter spun the increase in people seeking housing in its 175-bed facility as being "mind-boggling. We don't even have time to think about how many folks we're serving, and more come in." No conservative experts participated in the discussion. Instead, World News Tonight brought in a professor from the University of Pennsylvania to underscore its point. The professor pronounced that the rise in "emergency shelters means we have more homeless ... And the solution, obviously, is to increase the supply of subsidies so housing is more affordable to people who need it." Now we're getting to the crux of the story. The news report noted, "Federal funding for shelters has more than doubled to a billion dollars in the last eight years, but there's only money to provide housing assistance for one in four low income families that qualifies." If the problem is so serious, so "mind-boggling" -- where has ABC News been the past few years? In the last six years, World News Tonight has broadcast 50 stories on homelessness, but over half of these dealt with homelessness created because of natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods or earthquakes. ABC covered international homelessness from Turkey to Russia to Japan and what each government was doing about it. But stateside the story's been different. When it came to reporting on the homeless in America, since 1995, World News Tonight has focused primarily on (ITAL) successful (ITAL) federally funded programs that help the mentally ill, rebuild houses or find runaway teenagers a place to stay. Consider these facts: During the Clinton administration the networks broadcast an average of 16.5 reports on the plight of the homeless per year. Contrast that with how many homeless stories the networks ran while George H.W. Bush was president: an astounding average of 52.5 per year. By 1995, the network evening news shows ran only nine stories on homelessness. That's because when a Democrat is in the White House it no longer is a problem worthy of coverage. Suddenly, with Republicans back in control, we now see World News Tonight, along with The Washington Post and The New York Times, running stories about rising homelessness in major cities. The media are not only biased in their coverage of the homeless issue, they are notorious for being flat-footed wrong in their facts. For years the most commonly-used figure to cite the number of homeless in America was three million. At a congressional hearing on this issue the late homeless activist Mitch Snyder was challenged to give his documentation on that number. "I made it up," he responded, "to get your attention." In 1989, pre-Clinton, CBS anchor Charles Osgood claimed, without citing the source, that "It is estimated that by the year 2000, 19 million Americans will be homeless unless something is done, and done now." The same year, CNN ran a story using a study from Rutgers University that proclaimed if America experienced only a mild recession the number of homeless could triple. "There now are up to 40 million Americans" one paycheck away from living on "the streets," the story announced. Never mind the fact that the Census Bureau in 1990 estimated there were only 220,000 homeless Americans, and two other national surveys have pegged the total figure at between 200,000 and 500,000. The emerging homeless "problem" in America has nothing to do with the homeless and everything to do with W's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut. It is the first of what promises to be a barrage of class warfare-inducing stories meant to pit selfless America against the evil designs of that 1 percent of the greedy rich.