Habitual news watchers remember the networks' panicked reports on exploding homelessness in the 1980s. For example, CBS This Morning anchor Charles Osgood relayed on April 19, 1989: "It is estimated that by the year 2000, 19 million Americans will be homeless unless something is done, and done now."
On August 8, 1989, CNN anchor Lou Waters topped that wild estimate with a Rutgers University report: "There now are up to 40 million Americans living on the knife edge of homelessness, just one paycheck, one domestic argument from the streets."
In 1990, a partial count by the Census Bureau estimated only 230,000 homeless Americans. But the networks pushed the homeless story hard and blamed hard-hearted Republicans. Once Democrats took the White House, the problem disappeared. In a 1996 study of the evening news programs of ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN, we found:
Under Bush, there were 44 TV stories on homeless-ness in 1989, 71 in 1990, 54 in 1991, and 43 in 1992. The average was 52.5.
Upon Clinton's arrival in 1993, the numbers slowly dropped off: 35 in 1993, 32 in 1994, and just nine in 1995, for an average of 25.3.
Of the 76 stories in the first three years of the Clinton era, not a single one attached the problem to the Clinton administration. As ABC's Judy Muller explained during Clinton's glitzy first inauguration in 1993: "The Republicans were criticized for their show of wealth in the face of need. The Democrats seemed to have avoided that criticism. Perhaps because President Clinton has promised to help those less fortunate."
Since 1995, MRC analyst Jessica Anderson discovered the pattern of homelessness avoidance continued: eight stories in 1996, ten in 1997, and only four in 1998. Until last week, the 1999 network total was only six.
But TV reporters rediscovered the issue in New York, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the expected opponent to expected Senate candidate Hillary Clinton, instituted a policy of jailing homeless people who refuse to present themselves for shelter and other services.
On December 8, ABC's World News Tonight crusaded against Giuliani's effort to improve the city. A woman praised a court decision against what she called Giuliani's plan "to take children from the arms of their mothers." [See box.]
That night on the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather also took a shot at Giuliani as he summarized a HUD study of homelessness (assisted by the liberal Urban Institute): "Overall, this study found that programs to help the homeless do work, even as New York City has begun arresting some of the homeless."
CBS reporter Wyatt Andrews claimed "the homeless remain as prominent as ever on America's city streets." But the homeless only achieve prominence on TV when they're serving a political purpose. - Tim Graham