Surface-level journalism: New York Times fails to cover heart and soul of pro-Trump town

In my Associated Press days in Dallas, I helped cover Texas developments in President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.

Those stories ranged from analyzing the grassroots war for popular votes in the red state to highlighting a rare Lone Star county that split on Bush-Gore in 2000. Yes, I tackled religion-related angles, too, exploring "How would Jesus vote?" and explaining the political appeal of a Bush speech to the Knights of Columbus.

But one of my most memorable Bush-related pieces involved a furor over the president's "hometown paper" endorsing Democratic challenger John Kerry:

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) — Signs at the bank, the cafe and the Bottlinger Grain bins all declare Crawford – the proud home of the president’s ranch – as “Bush Country.”
So when the Lone Star Iconoclast, a tiny weekly that bills itself as Bush’s hometown paper, endorsed Democrat John Kerry, there was hell to pay.
Local businesses pulled their ads and banned the paper from their stores.
“We felt a little betrayed,” said Larry Nelson, manager of the Crawford Country Style, a downtown shop that sells “Luvya Dubya” trinkets and other Bush memorabilia.
Most folks in Crawford (pop. 705) wholeheartedly support the re-election of the man whose “Western White House” made their speck on the map famous. Eighty-two percent voted for President Bush in 2000.
The paper’s publisher, W. Leon Smith, said he never expected such a hostile response. He knew “a person or two might pull an ad, that we might lose a subscriber or two.”
“But this has turned a little more vicious,” said Smith, 51, wearing a decade-old knit tie and ink pens in his white shirt pocket.

Twelve years later, as normally reliable Republican editorial pages backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in droves, media organizations from NPR to Time to Vanity Fair all asked the same basic question: Do newspaper endorsements even matter anymore?

Short answer, based on Donald Trump's stunning victory on Nov. 8: Nope. Nada. Not at all.

But as the New York Times reported this week, endorsements definitely mattered in certain locales — just not in the way that journalists who wrote pro-Clinton editorials might have hoped. (That old editor in Crawford might have warned them.)

Here in my home state of Oklahoma, the Times focused on the backlash over the Enid News & Eagle — founded in 1893 — endorsing a Democratic for president for the first time in its modern history.

Way up top, the Old Gray Lady hints at a potential faith peg:

ENID, Okla. — One Sunday after church, Jeff Mullin and his wife were in line at the Western Sizzlin steakhouse here when a man, fists clenched, threatened to beat the hell out of him.
“My first thought was just to kind of try to keep things calm. Otherwise, it was going to be two old guys rolling around on the floor of the steakhouse, and that would be pretty unseemly,” recalled Mr. Mullin, 64, the mustachioed senior writer for Enid’s daily newspaper, The Enid News & Eagle.
The dispute was not personal. It was, of all things, editorial.
Mr. Mullin’s red newspaper in a red county in what is arguably the reddest of states went blue this campaign season and endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. The editorial board, in a gray-shaded column on Page A4 on Oct. 9, wrote that Donald J. Trump lacked “the skills, experience or temperament to hold office.” The headline and subhead read: “For U.S. president: Hillary Clinton is our choice for commander in chief.”

That lede gave me hope that the Times might explore the role of religion in Enid's political leanings and readers' responses to the editorial.

But read it all, and this piece serves up only surface-level coverage of the controversy, never delving into the actual reasons some Enid residents reacted so negatively. 

Why did folks in this Oklahoma town support Trump? Were they concerned about pocketbook issues or protection of unborn lives or the direction of the Supreme Court? Who knows? The Times never goes beyond that early characterization of "a red newspaper in a red county in what is arguably the reddest of states." 

In that respect, this story is similar to an earlier Times report on politically divided university campuses nationwide in which the left-leaning publication also failed to give voice to the concerns of those on the right.

At the end of the Enid story, the Times returns to the unnamed man accused of threatening to "beat the hell" out of the reporter:

At Western Sizzlin that Sunday, Mr. Mullin ended up ordering a six-ounce steak and a baked potato without further incident, but the confrontation disturbed and puzzled him. He and his wife attend Willow View United Methodist Church, as do members of the man’s family.
“Looking back on it, I think it was all talk, but at the time I thought there was a possibility that he might take a swing at me,” said Mr. Mullin, a member of the editorial board. “And I thought this is crazy. This is a newspaper endorsement. Some of the people almost seemed hurt. Like, ‘How can my newspaper’ — in a small town like this, it’s their newspaper — ‘do this to me?’ I think there was almost a sense of betrayal.”

As a reader, I enjoyed the Western Sizzlin lede and ending. I thought the anecdote helped tie the story together. But here's my pesky journalistic question: Did the Times try to contact the other party? In a fair story, doesn't the man deserve an opportunity to defend himself? How likely is it that folks in Enid know exactly who the Times is talking about? And the national newspaper has tried and convicted him without giving him an opportunity to respond.

Also, wouldn't it add to the story for the Times to contact someone with the church —  the pastor maybe — to get an outsider's perspective on the newspaper's endorsement and the town's response to it?

Please don't misunderstand my position: I think the backlash over the editorial is an excellent peg for a story.

I just wish the Times had dug a little deeper, both into the specifics of the Western Sizzlin incident and into Enid's heart and soul overall.

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