So, journalism elites, how is that "listening" to average Americans thing going?
The other day, our own Mark "KMark" Kellner took at look at an admirable effort by the features team at The Washington Post to visit rural, Middle America with the sole (or even soul) intent of listening to what ordinary people had to say in Corbin, Ky.
The story was packed with human details -- including a prayer said (gasp) out loud in a public restaurant. In the end, however, the emphasis was on politics, politics, politics. Politics is, after all, the most important factor in the lives of ordinary Americans. Got that?
You can certainly see that equation at work once again in a new report -- "Rural Americans felt abandoned by Democrats in 2016, so they abandoned them back. Can the party fix it?" -- from the faith-challenged political desk in this same newsroom. This is the latest of many Post political-desk reports that I have looked at in recent months, noting the religion and culture ghosts hiding between the lines.
You can see the basic tensions in the story in the overture. Who to quote when parsing out the direct-quote ink? The actual rural Americans or the Democratic Party operatives who are courting them?
HAYWARD, Wis. -- The local Democrats had hoped for 25 people to show up at the meeting, and they set up a dozen more chairs to be safe. By 12:30, 75 Democrats were crowding the VFW community center, some from as far as 90 miles away. They spent two hours venting to Thomas Perez, a candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, about how the party had blown it in rural America.
“I talked to neighbors, to working people, and they felt that the Democrats no longer represented working peoples’ interests,” said Steve Smith, a former state legislator from Wisconsin’s rural north woods who had lost his seat to a Republican in 2014. “I was shocked, but they were speaking from their heart. And in the 2016 election, rural America abandoned Democrats, because they felt like Democrats had abandoned them. We’ve got to use acute hearing and figure out how that happened.”
Perez scribbled in his notebook.
Now, two hours is A LOT of venting. Clearly the folks who turned out for this meeting spoke their minds. Readers are given this kind of quote:
“There’s a sign where I work that says, ‘No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care,’ ” said Mark Neumann, a local physician. “That’s how people feel in the backwaters of the Democratic Party.”
That's good. But what did these Democrats vent ABOUT during those two hours? What were the issues that were on their minds, the specific issues that they believe separate them from the party's leadership, including the candidates that are running in their districts? Were these issues all economic? Were there cultural divisions discussed? Some moral and religious issues?
The Post team -- as it should -- devotes quite a bit of time to the waves of recent urban protests by Democratic Party activists in reaction to the existence of the Donald Trump administration. The story -- as it should -- also notes that these protests do little to address concerns among working-class, often small-town Democrats in Rust Belt states.
It also notes that early "resistance" efforts in the Democratic heartland have, basically, leaned left when it comes to policy proposals. This angle receives many inches of content in the piece.
But what about the ordinary people at that extraordinary two-hour chat session? What did they have to say?
Alas, the Post team turns to a Republican for insight into that, as in Rep. Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.) of the 7th District.
Duffy, born in Hayward, said in an interview that town halls were coming -- he held dozens, in a contrast with Obey -- and that critics “have a right to petition their congressman.” He just wasn’t sure what the resistance was accomplishing, or what it hoped to accomplish.
“Wisconsin’s different,” Duffy said. “People have a sense of fair play. People look at the way Mr. Trump has been treated, and it’s clearly been unfair. Look at the Women’s March, and it’s been unfair. Save some jobs for people who were going to lose them at Christmas. What they were protesting was not his policy. It was that he was elected in the first place. ..."
This leads to a discussion of Democratic Party tactics against Gov. Scott Walker, which have been less than successful. That's more political horserace stuff, since that appears to be what this story is really all about.
But let me ask, once again: What did the ordinary Democrats say in that two-hour talkback session?
Well, no, we go back to Duffy for a moment, talking about the cultural style and content of the Women's March on Washington:
“Look at those signs,” he said. “Look at the vulgarity and the female body part suits they’re wearing. Look at CNN carrying it live and not cutting out the f-bombs from the stage. Frankly, while there might be problems with how the pause on refugees from some countries were carried out, if you ask people, they might not say it was executed in the best way, but they want to be safe.”
The Post piece, to its credit, does feature some ordinary-people quotes from folks gathered in bars on Super Bowl Sunday. All of the comments featured by the Post focus on economic issues.
But then, at the very end, there is this brief spotting of what appears to be a ghost:
In a dozen conversations, Sawyer County voters who had abandoned Democrats in 2016 said they did not necessarily embrace the Republican platform. They viewed the Democratic Party, especially its 2016 iteration, as lost and elitist. Or, they personally could not stand Clinton.
What, precisely, were people saying that was summed up in that poignant phrase that the Democratic Party was "lost and elitist"? What was it about Clinton, in particular, that pushed them to Trump? There are, to be sure, "elitist" views on economic issues, but that is also a term that is frequently linked to issues of religion, culture, morality and education.
Back at that two-hour talkback session, what did it mean when the rank-and-file folks said that they thought that "Democrats no longer represented working peoples’ interests"? What examples did they give? Whose interests -- what niches in American life -- did they think are being promoted by the current Democratic Party leadership?
Did anyone talk about that? Did they mention any specific issues? If the point of the Post piece was to listen closely and then let readers know what went on in that two-hour talkback session, why not quote some of the actual people -- in addition to Neumann, the physician -- who spoke up?
Just asking. Maybe the ordinary folks didn't talk about the kinds of issues that mattered most to editors at the Post political desk?