Congratulations to Diane Sawyer and her team for the ABC special in January, My Reality: A Hidden America, about America’s income stagnation and loss of opportunity. It was a brilliant humanization of our growing crisis of inequality, and a much-needed call for economic justice.
It did what the most powerful reporting always does—it conveyed the reality of our lives by telling stories about individual people and showing how economic issues are holding them back and robbing them of hope. Ultimately, the special asked whether or not the American dream can endure. The entire special underscored how only a small minority of our population can actually get ahead—those who serve or belong within America’s thriving plutocracy. The profiles of people spanned a large cross-section of the American demographic. The cases covered a broad range of employment and income ranges: firefighters, burger flippers, tech workers, and professors. Her team focused on people in a dozen cities, based on 18 months of research.
What they achieved is remarkable because the news media—both print and broadcast—seldom, if ever, report in any depth on the reality of “the other America.” The unseen America lives in the drive-by zip codes, the sectors of our towns and cities entirely uninhabited, and unvisited, by members of the media. It was such a relief to see members of that media finally venture out and talk to American people where they live.
Sawyer told AdWeek what she found: “The middle class is shrinking, wages are stalled and the American media hasn’t really been paying enough attention to this story.”
Her report was an early step toward correcting those problems.
Parts of the report were less than optimally effective. The discussion of earned income tax credits was significant—it’s an idea that deserves serious consideration—but it probably remained murky and opaque to most viewers who weren’t already familiar with the subject. On the other hand, Darren Walker, head of the Ford Foundation, was terrific. One of my favorite moments was when the CEO of a large financial corporation admitted that he had to do research to realize his people were underpaid. It perfectly demonstrated what I’ve found about the C suite in my discussions about wages with CEOs over the past two years: they live in isolated bubbles, unaware of how their employees are struggling simply to stay out of debt.
On balance, the series was a home run. It appropriately focused on dramatizing the carnage left behind by income inequality, and the accelerating decline of the American Dream. I hope and pray this special will be followed by what has been promised. Sawyer predicts her team will track how attempts to change course are having an impact on the lives of average people. It’s a great idea: observe and measure actual results in companies trying to do things differently. She will zoom in on particular companies that have committed themselves to changing the lives of their workers for the better. Perfect: get away from accusatory, partisan rhetoric and determine what actually works, and what doesn’t.
In my own work I have learned the hard way that constructive, meaningful solutions can only come after the problems and the drivers of those problems are clearly identified. Critically important solutions need context to be understood. It simply doesn’t help to point fingers and identify the enemy on moral grounds—our economic quandary is too complex for that. There must be hard, proven arguments that both the economy and all, absolutely all of the critical constituencies and stakeholders can come out winners. I am optimistic that all these objectives can be met, and in April I will publish, Capitalists Arise! a book that both delineates in great detail the nature of our crisis and lays out clearly how we can respond to it. Only after the problems are properly defined can we begin to act on it in order to bring change. The good news is that some companies have embarked on this path already, and many have been thriving for years by putting employees and customers first.
But before the rest can be convinced that this needs to happen, we need more reports like Sawyers to awaken everyone to how dangerous this crisis is—right now. My Reality—A Hidden America did just that.