He’s written thousands of articles for The New York Times, produced dozens of documentaries for PBS, and written seven books, but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith says his latest venture is among his most ambitious undertakings to date. In April, Smith, a 1970 Nieman Fellow, launched ReclaimTheAmericanDream.org, a nonpartisan website designed as an informational gateway for people who want to take civic action in their communities but don’t know where to begin. The website’s origins lie in the barrage of questions Smith faced from audience members when he was promoting “Who Stole the American Dream?”, his 2012 book exploring how, over the past four decades, a series of landmark political and economic decisions have undermined middle-class America and the American Dream. Stemming from that, Smith’s site focuses on a handful of reform issues—including student debt, the minimum wage, and public campaign funding—and presents a number of informative resources, from briefings on the issues and progress reports of actions already underway to success stories and a docket of external organizations and experts with further information. Smith hopes the site, which he continues to update, provides something he feels is lacking in today’s media landscape: a comprehensive but accessible outlet to help spur Americans’ political engagement.
What were audience members asking you on your book tour that prompted you to create ReclaimtheAmericanDream.org?
They just bombarded me with questions about, ‘What can we do about the situation?’ They’d say, ‘We’ve got a broken political system, we’ve got unequal economics, the middle class is stuck in the rut, Washington isn’t listening to the country, corporate and financial interest have captured the government and here we are out in the country in Connecticut, in Washington state, in Florida, Nebraska, and California and we’re frustrated and we don’t feel there’s anything we can do about it.’ I knew that there were efforts for reform under way in America–some places that were raising the minimum wage, some places that were trying to deal with student debt, and a bunch of states that had passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to roll back Citizens United–so I’d give audiences these various different examples of reform underway as a way of saying, ‘You can do this in your own hometown,’ but I kept getting asked by people where they can find that on the web where somebody has put all that together. So that’s really where the idea came from – it came from grassroots demand for the information. I thought I better put something together that begins to answer, in an organized way, the questions that these people have.
What sets your site apart from one created by an advocacy group?
I think part of what we bring to this site as journalists is credibility. We can give a non-advocacy report that people can trust, and I think part of what we can bring is the fun and the storytelling that journalists specialize in [by including success stories]. And what I’m trying to do here is not just focus on one issue. You can find groups that are pushing a constitutional amendment, you can find groups that are pushing a livable wage, but what I’m trying to do is what journalists do all the time: provide general information for a general audience on multiple topics, multiple approaches, and multiple strategies. My object is to act as a gateway website to give people a feeling that democracy still works at the grassroots level and that there is something that they can do.
What do you think ReclaimtheAmericanDream.org can offer citizens interested in current reform issues that the mainstream media does not provide?
We’re offering a website that does a unique job in trying to pull together trends that get hit from time to time or that fall under the radar of the mainstream media. I don’t think the mainstream media is doing a good job of covering what’s going on in the country; it’s extremely focused on Washington or individual states. Newspapers, television stations, radio stations will cover what’s going on in their state but people in other states won’t find out about it. If it makes it into the national media, it’s a one-day story and it disappears. Los Angeles raises its minimum wage to $15—that’s a really big city with a lot of workers and that’s a very important move for that city to make and maybe it’s a five- or six-paragraph story in USA Today, but it’s here and gone and people don’t get the importance of it. What we’re trying to do is tie that together with the fact that there are 28 states that have higher minimum wages than the federal minimum wage and here’s a map you can go and find out where your state stands. I don’t think that much of the mainstream media is doing that job—I think we’re filling a gap.
Do you think your experience as a New York Times foreign correspondent makes you approach coverage of reform efforts in America differently than you would had you never reported overseas?
I don’t think there’s any question that my experience as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in a bunch of different countries and cities, from Vietnam to Cairo to Paris to Moscow, has greatly affected how I look at coverage in America. I think our coverage is way too divided between this huge concentration on Washington and presidential politics and almost ignoring the rest of the country. If you were a correspondent in Russia, or in Egypt, you would cover hunger, you cover religion, you cover different generations, you cover how people have fun—you cover everything. That unquestionably affected me in what I’m interested in, in what I think matters, and how I see the news. There’s a tendency of Washington correspondents and editors and producers to sort of under-regard the stuff that happens around the country as an inside-of-the-paper story. I don’t look at it that way. It’s all part of the organic connection of the country.
Rather than advocacy, do you think ReclaimtheAmericanDream.org falls within the realm of solutions journalism?
We’re interested in putting potential solutions out there. To me, one of the problems of American journalism, at least for the last 30 years or so, has been that we regard as our job to find out what doesn’t work—[to find] where the government is screwing up, where politicians are screwing up, where companies are cheating, and so forth. And that is a major part of our job, I don’t deny that at all, but we ignore or treat as not-very-interesting news when things succeed. We don’t give anywhere as much attention to successful things. If we report them, we report them once. If there are problems at the veterans affairs administration, we report it hundreds of times, but if there’s some success there, you never hear it. If it is solutions journalism to report things that work, then yeah, I’m a solutions journalist. I think we have an obligation to report things that work and institutions that work and individuals that are effective and so forth, and that’s going to enhance our connection with our readership because people living their ordinary lives know there’s good news as well as bad news, and if all we deliver is bad news, we lose credibility with our audience and we lose connection. We become less and less relevant to their lives.