Another Installment of the Times Series That Doesn't Trust You to Know What They're Talking About

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There's another installment in the New York Times of its "Beth Court" series today, and it suffers from the same problems of its previous episodes.

Once again, reporter Jennifer Steinhauer has done terrific work tracking down all the financial information of the families living on a particular cul-de-sac in Southern California. This time, she tells us, there's been some general improvement on the street as the folks on the cul-de-sac seem to be mirroring the general improvement in the country's economy.

And that's pretty much all the Times wants us to take away from this series, a classic example of contest bait. The Times wants us to think that it has found the perfect little street to stand in for the rest of the country's economic rollercoaster ride. Earlier, the street was in chaos. Now, things are getting better -- just like the country as a whole.

Once again, however, the Times is trying to get away with something by not giving us any context whatsoever about Beth Court and where it's located.

As in previous stories, we're simply told that the street is in a place called Moreno Valley, which is somewhere east of L.A.

That's it. Nothing more about how, as OC Weekly writer Gustavo Arellano and I pointed out earlier, Moreno Valley is actually an armpit where only the most desperate of apartment dwelling people in LA and Orange Counties go in totally risky attempts at home ownership. (See "The Times Picks a Dumb Place for an Epic Series")

It's puzzled me why the Times hasn't at least given some indication of this neighborhood's development and past, and its relationship to LA and Orange Counties, where its residents come from. I can't imagine them leaving out that kind of information if they were doing a similar series about a town closer to New York.

Here's what the Times does tell us about its series: "Beginning last January, the New York Times made regular visits to Beth Court, about 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, to chronicle how the foreclosure crisis had reshaped a middle-class neighborhood."

Well see, there's the problem. Either the Times is lying and knows that Moreno Valley isn't a middle-class neighborhood, or they're clueless and really don't understand what "middle-class" means.

Only two paragraphs later, for example, Steinhauer refers to one of the success stories, a Mr. Winkler, who has found work -- as a factory worker. Others on the street work as landscapers or in beauty salons.

Does the Times really not understand that Beth Court, and Moreno Valley is a working-class community? In fact, there's a much more interesting story to be told here about working-class families from LA and Orange Counties risking everything to get a piece of middle-class life in a totally sketchy, marginal community like Moreno Valley.

In fact, one of the charms of Steinhauer's earlier pieces was the way she documented the tension between longer-term residents of the street and some of the newcomers who had arrived with such working-class notions as nontraditional, extended families. (And cars on the lawn.)

What the Times either knew and suppressed or didn't understand is that from the beginning, a totally illogical community carved out of the desert like Moreno Valley was always about semi-employed families taking a risky shot at moving up in the world, and that they not only lived on the edge of LA in a literal sense, but also in a more metaphorical sense as well.

Did the Times really think it was so remarkable to find a street in financial chaos in a place like Moreno Valley? Sure, there's a recession on, but in working class neighborhoods families are always only a paycheck or two away from disaster. That's not news. Never has been.

So why didn't the Times choose an actual middle-class neighborhood for this kind of report, one that might more accurately reflect the plight of its own readers?

Two reasons. First, middle class folks tend to be more media savvy, and are smart enough not to talk to reporters about their finances.

And second, in actual middle class neighborhoods, although there's been plenty of stress and worry during the recession, folks usually have more resources than a weekly paycheck, and can weather trouble more easily than the people in a place like Moreno Valley.

Times columnist David Carr has countered my criticism of the Beth Court series in the past by pointing out that the type of community I'm describing is one he sees all around the country. And he's right. There are marginal, middle-of-nowhere developments that offer completely inconvenient commutes to people desperate enough to roll the dice on a house they can barely afford in an attempt to claw their way out of even worse living conditions. But there isn't even a hint in the Times Beth Court series that they've chosen such a place. Instead, they've erased nearly everything about it so that we can imagine it is Everyplace, U.S.A.

That feels like a dodge to me. But I get the feeling they're counting on a reader who doesn't know anything about Moreno Valley or the other ridiculous places carved out of the California desert for similar developments.

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