So far, her hypothesis on Clinton's welfare reform hasn't crumbled. It's not the standard liberal line, she tells the 500 people. She herself argued for welfare reform.The old system was demoralizing and bureaucratic. It didn't encourage education.

But the Clinton bill, she charges, plunged one million children into deeper poverty. Thirty percent of the work force earns near the poverty level, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Why should anyone have a work ethic when employers don't have a pay ethic?" she asks, steaming that corporate welfare has replaced welfare. "A lot of what is going on in our economy is about greed."

Welfare reform is a case where cheap journalism-- journalism that hits hot buttons instead of the real story-- drives national policy, she contends. "Our only housing program for the poor is prisons. We begin to use the military as the only politically possible way to create jobs: that leads to fellows like Timothy McVeigh."

Ehrenreich brings an insider's edge to her vivisection of journalism, particularly TV and magazines. In the past decade, she earlier told a rapt, all-ages crowd on the University of Oregon campus, she's watched the mainstream media become a landfill of stories on the likes of the Menendez brothers, OJ Simpson, and Gennifer Flowers. She's seen real news twisted into tabloid-style sleaze. She's seen journalists abdicating their professional judgment on news worthiness, succumbing to a market- driven quest for viewers, readers, and advertisers.

Scandal, celebrity gossip, and cutesy animal features have squeezed out stories about fighting in Zaire, revamping Social Security, and goings-on at the local toxic waste site.

And yes, she asserts, when goods and viruses wing their way between continents within hours, the big picture matters.

Those living in a world of delusion can become terrified of monsters that don't exist and risk being destroyed by ones they choose to ignore, she says. Pollsters find Americans are fearful of violent crime and airline terrorism in proportions far beyond their incidence. Policy decisions are based on media-stoked hysteria.

"Our nation devotes more and more resources to punishment and less to social programs that prevent crime. The real threat to airline safety are the CEOs who are more interested in keeping airline stock up than airplanes," she says to laughter.

The irony, she notes, is that trash's sizzle seldom sustains the public's long-term interest, as shown by continued declines in TV news audiences. Be a pest, urges Ehrenreich. Badger the mainstream media for solid coverage of stories that affect your community and your life. Support the alternative press and public radio in their struggle to live without corporate advertisers.

Democracy itself is at stake.

"When we are fed a steady diet of trash," she warns, "we know less about matters that may actually matter to us."

As stories such as Heaven's Gate and geriatric tips consume news minutes, coverage of local government has become as rare as roses in winter. "Local government is seen as a real snooze," she says over lunch with a tableful of women journalists and university staff. It's a vicious circle, she details: as people know less about local government, they lose the thread of the story, lose interest-- and lose the ability to vote intelligently.

Everyday Americans, she says, don't need OJ to escape the humdrum. They need to rediscover the fun of local politics. "There's drama, factions, intrigue," Ehrenreich ticks off in her dry manner. "We're losing that sense that we can be important actors in our own history."

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