NBC News: Making No Difference

For several years now, NBC Nightly News has concluded its broadcasts with a feature called "Making a Difference."  Invariably, those people thought to be "making a difference" fit neatly into the politically correct template of liberal politics.  The segment regularly features individuals who have been "victimized by society," as liberals like to believe.  Exactly what this means is never spelled out, but a review of recent episodes is revealing.

Again and again, "making a difference" is devoted to addressing supposed inequities related to race or class.  The stories are predictable.  Dresses are sewn by Midwestern grandmoms for needy children in Africa.  A California group brings hope to deprived children by fostering their appreciation of classical music.  A middle-class couple spends thirty years distributing sleeping bags to the homeless.  A community group brings cheer to the poor during the Christmas holidays.  An inner-city choir restores pride to black youth by winning a national competition.  Urban artists transform a run-down inner-city neighborhood by creating public art and attracting customers to neighborhood businesses.

This is all well and good, but all of these stories proceed from the same template.  Middle-class Americans -- normally white, middle-class Americans -- are celebrated for devoting their time and money to the relief of poor, often black Americans or to impoverished peoples abroad, often in Africa, the Caribbean, or Latin America.  While sometimes self-funded, these charitable activities are often supported by nonprofit organizations partially funded by government grants.  The implication is that public funding of this kind is a good "investment."  

Like all liberal journalism, NBC is fond of reporting on the plight of needy children -- children who are sick, who are hungry, who are homeless, or who are otherwise in need.  Only a hardhearted Grinch could object to charities that address the needs of these, the "youngest victims."

The problem is that such children are so often used as pawns in the larger political debate.  The existence of a single sick child suggests the need for universal national health care.  A child discovered going hungry suggests the need for more donations to food banks but also a "minimum income" whether or not the parents -- and more often, the parent -- work.  A child "denied the opportunity" to play the violin suggests more funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Night after night, the implication of "Making a Difference" is that the white middle class has it too easy, while the urban underclass, through no fault of its own, suffers as a result of middle-class affluence.  It is therefore the responsibility of the middle class to "give something back."

Is this true?

A recent survey found that over one quarter of homeless persons are alcoholics.  Another large segment of the homeless were drug addicts and small-time criminals.  Is the middle-class couple, working ten hours a day, raising their children decently, and supporting their church, somehow to blame for the condition of homeless individuals?  Should the middle class feel guilty because they sit down to a comfortable meal every night while others who are alcoholics and addicts camp under bridges? 

Similarly, is it the fault of the American middle class that the per capita income in certain African nations is less than a dollar a day?  Is the CPA who studied hard in college, worked long hours to establish his business, and put in forty years somehow to blame for the dysfunctional post-independence governments that have plagued the Congo and other nations in the so-called developing world?  Must this CPA "make a difference" by embarking on mission trips to Africa and supporting increased U.S. aid?  That seems to be the point of "Making a Difference." 

But does such activity actually make a difference?

Indeed, why is it that capitalism per se is never depicted as making a difference?  It is well and good to devote one's energies to a nonprofit organization that spreads holiday cheer.  That sort of activity probably does a certain amount of good in addressing the effects of poverty.  But it does not create the sort of wealth that reduces poverty to begin with and so permanently eliminates the effects of poverty.  Only the free market can do that, and the free market for some reason is rarely the object of NBC's attentions.

The fact is that those who are making the greatest difference in American society, and in global well-being generally, are the millions of employees who report to work every day, strive to produce profits for their company, and, in the course of doing so, produce the goods and services enjoyed by all.  A person who begins work for ExxonMobil or IBM at age 22 and works for 43 years, thereby contributing to the success of one of America's great corporations and to the wealth of his country, is a hero who should be honored.  A lifelong alcoholic who sleeps under a bridge is not.

Clearly, the people at NBC have it wrong, but it is not just because they have missed the obvious.  It is, I suspect, because, as part of the liberal culture, those who control the national media believe that equality of outcomes is more important than overall prosperity.  Given the choice between a nation with an average GDP of $100,000 per year, unequally distributed, and a nation with GDP of $20,000 for all, a liberal would choose the latter.  As long as one member of society is driving a Rolls-Royce or sipping Johnny Walker Blue Label on his hundred-foot yacht, no liberal can sleep at night.  What's more, no liberal could ever admit that yacht-owners like Larry Elisson or Paul Allen are the ones who have really made a difference.

Jeffrey Folks is author of many books and articles on American culture and politics.