Clichéd unemployment reporting now underway!

I was wondering when my local paper, the Los Angeles Times, would dust off the most shopworn of journalistic practices during a recession: visiting the local unemployment office. Such articles do little more than assay the desperation of the people using the services, and throw in a quote or two from the office staff about how busy it’s been. They provide little a dwindling pool of newspaper readers doesn’t already know.

Then they all rolled in at once: Times columnists Sandy Banks and Steve Lopez published essentially the same stories over the weekend, visiting California Employment Development Department (EDD) offices in the San Fernando Valley. Although the Times just announced plans to axe its local/California section, the city editors may have already departed.

The same might be said for the copy desk, given this doozy of an observation by Lopez: “I feel for the first time in my life that most of us are one piece of bad news away from the abyss. As I write this, another round of layoffs is being announced by my employer, and a cloud that never moves too far away has darkened another day.”

staring down an abyss, or another deadline?

Steve Lopez: staring down an abyss, or another movie deal?

Lopez’s Points West column is mostly rock-solid, and is arguably the most visible and popular feature in the Times. That’s supported by the fact the paper regularly runs ads showing him in a crosswalk just yards from his office, appearing to stalk either eternal truth or a Frappuccino. In April, Lopez will be portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. in “The Soloist,” which is based on his reporting about a homeless man who is a Juilliard-trained musician (Jamie Foxx).

If your paper’s marketing campaign is designed around you and you have a movie coming out based on your work that’s packed with Oscar-winning and nominated actors, a personal abyss is unlikely unless you commence smoking crack or molesting children. It would have been more intellectually honest had Lopez acknowledged that reality in his column, but then he wouldn’t have been able to file prose as purple as an eggplant.

Banks’s column wasn’t much of an improvement. She reported the recession was hitting the middle-class very hard, but inextricably tied its plight into the recent murder-suicide of a local family committed by unemployed x-ray technician Ervin Lupoe, who gunned down his wife and five children.

“His predicament – deeply in debt, jolted by job loss, despondent over his family’s future – is becoming a familiar story,” Banks wrote. This description is at odds with her own newspaper’s reporting that the Lupoes’s financial situation “did not appear particularly dire” and that their credit card bills were paid up. Banks also filled many, many paragraphs before getting around to mentioning that Lupoe and his wife lost their jobs with Kaiser Permanente not because of the economic environment but because they falsified documents to obtain discounted child-care. Derangement, not despondency, was Ervin Lupoe’s operative emotion.

Banks is more on point when she describes the pricey vehicles many of the office’s patrons were driving. But then she recalled the unemployment her late husband suffered during the 1981-82 recession. Even though he eventually segued out of social work and into a more lucrative career in sales, Banks noted the experience “exhausted our savings, strained our relationship and stole our youthful optimism.” Oy.

Sandy Banks, some 28 years removed from youthful optimism.

Sandy Banks, some 28 years removed from youthful optimism.

Both stories were acutely lacking in analysis. Lopez ticked off the former occupations of the job-seekers: construction, sales, animal hospital receptionist, Wal-Mart clerk, waiter, telemarketer, managing director, etc. He didn’t note that most of those positions are held by people without a college education, and are therefore going to have a tenuous economic toehold during both busts and booms. He ended the story on a slight up-note, discussing how a frequent EDD patron had come up with a great idea to help his fellow unemployed, but added a snarky remark on how the man can tell a growth industry when he sees one.

Neither Banks or Lopez bothered to ask any EDD employees what the impact will be when their offices are closed two days a month and they will suffer a corresponding pay cut part of a cost-control measure undertaken by the State of California.

The one upside to these stories is that they tend to blossom during the trough of a recession, meaning some brighter news may well be ahead. Some are even informative: in a dog-bites-man twist, the Wall Street Journal reported in mid-January on how the unemployment offices in New Jersey have become a source of jobs for people out of work.

The Vancouver (Wash.) Colombian is more typical. It reported on the glitches the unemployed have experienced with Washington State’s mostly automated system to obtain benefits (the second-most shopworn element of this story is to report on the troubles people have getting their payments – and, indeed, the Times chimed in with this piece on Monday). The Colombian noted that at a state-mandated session to counsel the unemployed, “a line of 20 had already formed outside the door” by 7:45 a.m. However, it didn’t confirm whether this is a typical occurrence. It also had its share of interviews with those left despondent by their job losses, and the omniscient overview quote: “This is going to be the longest recession since the Great Depression,” says a regional labor analyst.

Gee, I’m glad I haven’t heard something like that before.

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