Red and Blue America: Does the New York Times give facts on ground or views from top?

In yet another election postmortem, the New York Times team tried a novel idea -- a street-level view of the thoughts and fears that drove red and blue America. The simple goal was to report what ordinary people said.

Or at least readers got to hear what the Times people heard. Some of the 2,600-word piece reveals a viewpoint as skewed as some of those it reports.

The article is broken into segments, each by a different writer, and they vary widely in tone and balance. Some are genuinely sensitive.

There's an almost palpable anguish in Julie Turkewitz' section, on how many people isolate themselves from those who differ with their worldviews:

In some ways, the echo chamber was the winner of this election. Here we are, deeply connected. And yet red America is typing away to red America, and blue America is typing away to blue America. The day after the election, some people said the echo chamber had begun to feel like a prison.

Turkewitz notes that one of her two main sources truly wants to escape her bubble. The woman, who voted for Hillary Clinton for president, has only two or three friends -- both on Facebook -- who supported Trump. The other, a fellow Clinton supporter, seems happy to stay in her echo chamber.

Religion is seeded throughout the article, but only one section deals directly with it. Times veteran Laurie Goodstein draws from interviews on the Godbeat this year.

She sounds sympathetic to people on the cultural right, at first:

In interviews this year, I often heard bewilderment and resentment from these believers at the pace of cultural and demographic change. Still reeling from last year’s Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage, they felt pummeled this year when the Obama administration set rules for transgender students in school bathrooms. They were disturbed to see businesses setting aside prayer rooms for Muslims when Christians were not allowed to recite the Lord’s Prayer at high school graduation. Mr. Trump told them he was their "last chance" to protect their religious liberty and limit abortion -- and many believed it.

But the section falters with the oft-cited, but simplistic, claim that 81 percent of white evangelicals favored Trump. This stems from an exit poll Nov. 8 by the National Election Pool, of which the Times was a member. How did they know who is an evangelical? I can only guess that they just asked each person -- who might not even know a definition.

Well, that's a real problem that GetReligion has been covering for nearly 13 years.

Pollster George Barna has long set clear criteria for evangelical status -- such as salvation as a gift, the accuracy of the Bible, the existence of Satan, and that Jesus lived a sinless life. And he repeated them in September. So even if it missed Barna's previous articles, the Election Pool had plenty of time to prepare.

This 362-word segment also makes much of the Rev. William Barber II and his Moral Revival Tour of 22 states starting last April (and continuing through January). After the election -- which clearly didn’t go his way -- Barber's Twitter went silent until Friday. Then he said: "This is where we redouble our commitment to be instruments of truth, love, and justice."

So red-zip-code America stands against truth, love and justice? That would be a pretty stark division, all right. But we get no admission or denial from red America. Not even an acknowledgement that the Rev. Franklin Graham held rallies in all 50 states this year in his Decision America Tour. Graham urged believers to "pray, vote and engage in the political process," the website says, adding that more than 230,000 people attended.

Other sections of the Times article make religion an ingredient but not the main issue. Campbell Robertson is positively insightful in grappling with the concept of an elite. He says it's not money or education or even "historical advantage," as he says the left calls it:

This is, to many, what constitutes the elite: the people who set the cultural and societal norms, and who do so without their input or influence.
Across Trump-supporting social media this week, some were celebrating but many others — including the president-elect himself — were expressing deep frustration. Even after a stunning victory, they saw themselves being described as bigoted and unenlightened.
And even with the Republicans having achieved near-total control of all levels of government, this remained an aggravating conundrum: The elites are still the ones who decide who gets to be elite.

But Robertson blurs his point by alleging the source of much of Trump’s support: "frustration that the majority must grant marginalized groups -- immigrants, transgender people -- particular protection and deference." His example is the battle this year over a 110-foot metal cross near Jackson, Miss. Speakers railed against atheists, he says, even though Mississippi is, on many metrics, the most religious state in the country.  

That strikes me as a poor example of the nationwide issue, exactly because it's the most religious state. If Campbell's three quoted paragraphs are accurate, it's precisely the opposite in most regions -- more like frustration at scorn from elites who marginalize conservative religion.

Another Times writer, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, mourns the fact that her female contacts "insist they want a unified America" yet "could not be further apart." Indeed: her chosen sources include a transgender person, an NAACP officer and a granddaughter of a Polish immigrant.

Stolberg's best comment: "For years politicians have framed the divide as Red America versus Blue America. But Mr. Trump’s victory has me thinking about our national divide as a clash between Americans who prize the melting pot, and those who embrace the concept of the 'salad bowl.' "

She's also sharp in noting that the Polish-American prefers assimilation, while the other two do not. The transgender person feels she's being pushed to leave. The NAACP officer notes that her forebears didn’t immigrate -- they were brought here forcibly.

Still, the account lacks balance. Only the Polish-American woman's religious beliefs are spelled out. Does that mean the other two don’t consider their beliefs important? Or that the reporter herself regards religion as marginal? Is that perhaps why two "blue" viewpoints are arrayed against only one "red"?

I'll mention one more section just because it seems so, well, New York Times-ish. Manny Fernandez, writing from Houston, cites a list of offensive statements by Texas leaders -- such as comparing Syrian refugees to snakes and asking Muslims to "publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws."

Why bring all this up? Well, in this writer's estimation:

Mrs. Clinton’s supporters in blue America cringed at Mr. Trump’s inflammatory remarks during the campaign, but his supporters throughout red America barely flinched. They were used to it. They lived in places where public figures had been making Trump-esque comments for years. In red Texas in particular, I have found, the notion of being offended is regarded as a "blue" concept.

There's the real division, Fernandez says: Blue America gets offended, and Trump's America doesn't care. Got it?

Bottom line for the Times piece: "A" for concept, "C-minus" or "D-plus" for execution.  Some of the pieces offer an intense look at the thoughts and fears of many people on the ground. Others read like little more than the views of the writers, with examples cherry-picked to support their case.

I don't know if the article shows the state of the nation, but it sure is a sign of the Times.

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