As Adam Johnson pointed out back in August — and as Bailey Stuber discussed on Episode 9 of the podcast — U.S. media outlets love stories like these but usually fail to pursue the bigger questions that these stories raise. Johnson put it this way:
A healthy press would take these anecdotes of “can do” spirit and ask bigger questions, like why are these people forced into such absurd hardship? Who benefits from skyrocketing college costs? Why does the public transit in this person’s city not have subsidies for the poor? Why aren’t employers forced to offer time off for catastrophic accidents? But time and again, the media mindlessly tells the bootstrap human interest story, never questioning the underlying system at work.
But when this kind of story goes viral in China, the New York Times has no trouble immediately discerning that there are in fact two contradictory aspects to this story: first, the propaganda value of this “symbol of the raw determination of rural residents” (as the NYT reporter put it), and second, the “plight of the tens of millions of so-called left-behind children who grow up in impoverished rural areas largely on their own after their parents leave to work in big cities” (again in the words of the NYT reporter).
We don’t get this kind of nuance when it comes to the U.S. versions of these stories. As Johnson and Stuber pointed out, we get two versions of this story: the original version, where some impoverished worker walks ten miles uphill in the snow both ways to work every day, and then the follow-up where the news media congratulates itself for telling this inspiring story by reporting on the groundswell of public support for the impoverished worker, who (thanks to a GoFundMe campaign or a generous anonymous donor) can now afford a car to get to work.
Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but it would be nice if the news operations that run these types of “perseverance porn” (Johnson’s term) stories read the NYT’s China example and realized that their own puff pieces about these diligent, obedient individuals who gratefully schlep to their grueling, underpaid jobs every day are actually part of a larger narrative serving a specific political perspective and propaganda purpose.