On Monday The Washington Post introduced readers to one Britton Stein of Sugar Land, Texas, in a piece titled, “For A Conservative, Life is Sweet in Sugar Land, Tex.” Written by David Finkel, the story of Stein - “His truck is a Chevy. His Beer is Bud Light. His Savior is Jesus Christ” - was one of a three-part series called “America in Red and Blue: A Nation Divided.”
(By way of reminder, as the Post’s David Von Drehle wrote in his Sunday kick-off to the series, “political scientists and practitioners often speak of ‘Red-Blue America,’ evoking maps of the 2000 election returns; indeed, the phrase is used so loosely that it has spawned a competing pundit class devoted to knocking down oversimplifications of the idea.”)
Speaking of oversimplifications and those who exist to knock them down, the Britton Stein piece gave Campaign Desk pause. Here, we thought, was the press feeding readers a stereotype, reinforcing the “expected,” which allows them to later present the “unexpected,” the exception to the carefully chronicled “rule” … say, the Punk Republican.
Campaign Desk wasn’t alone among media watchers to have a strong reaction to Finkel’s piece. ABC’s political newsletter The Note wrote that while “full of color and some insight…it might seem strained and patronizing to some of its conservative readers.” The ever-opinionated Wonkette called Finkel’s piece a “massive collection of condescending clichés.”
Also on Monday, the Post teased the third and final story in the series, promising to introduce readers on Tuesday to a “blue” family, “The Harrisons of San Francisco. ” Based on Finkel’s “red state” story, readers could be forgiven for anticipating that the Harrisons would be, say, a hyper-educated couple of gay vegans who run an antique shop in Pacific Heights, lack traditional moral compasses, compost in their kitchen, work for Greenpeace, listen to Pacifica Radio and read The Nation.
Readers would be wrong.
Tom and Maryanne Harrison turned out to be church-goers, big believers in family time, with a daughter who is happily (and heterosexually) married and a son who is soon to follow. Like Mrs. “Red State” Stein, Mrs. Harrison is a Eucharistic minister at the local church. Like Mr. “Red State” Stein, Mr. Harrison drives a pick-up and “can often be found in a recliner—the very place one might find [Mr. Stein].” And Finkel witnessed both men giving money to homeless people.
After reading both “red” and “blue” stories, Campaign Desk was curious about the anatomy of this series. We had a lot of questions. First, what did the Steins and Harrisons think about Finkel’s take on them? Both Britton Stein (a.k.a. Mr. Red) and Maryanne Harrison (Mrs. Blue), reached by phone in Sugar Land and San Francisco respectively, told Campaign Desk that they felt Finkel had portrayed them fairly and accurately. “He hit the nail on the head,” Maryanne Harrison said. The rest of our questions were for the reporter himself.
Liz Cox Barrett: What did you have in mind when looking for your subjects - what were you looking for? How did you go about finding a stereotype?
David Finkel: If you read David [Von Drehle’s] piece [introducing the red-blue series], I thought it was an authoritative piece about a particular moment we’re in with a divided electorate. We thought we’d try to find, as a starting point, someone who fit in many ways - there’s no perfect thing - someone who could seem like a stereotype of a red and blue person, and use the technique of narrative journalism to write about what their life is like. So they’re narrative pieces, with the starting point of seeming like a stereotype and going from there into something beyond stereotype. That’s the hope; it’s up to readers to decide.
We decided for the first couple of pieces in what should be a continuing series that we would not start with wedge issues or swing states or borderlines between red and blue, but that we’d take a serious swipe at what is the meaning of red, blue. We decided that to go into the backyards of [Rep. Nancy] Pelosi and [Rep. Tom] DeLay made sense…
I did “red” first. I went to DeLay’s neighborhood, starting asking around and talking to people, saying here is what poll results and political consultants say are the qualities of a red person and I’m looking for someone who fits these qualities… then I’m going to hang out and see what their life is really like. I went through a bunch of people in DeLay’s neighborhood until I found Mr. Stein and Mr. Stein, he was interesting and likeable.
The same thing happened in San Francisco until I found the Harrison family. It was a matter of trying to pay attention to them, not judge them. I told them up front, I’m not going to stand in judgment of them, I’m going to try to take your life seriously and describe it with some good journalism… These were rather intimate pieces, these people were not newsworthy except in the sense that they represent some theme we want to pay attention to.
LCB: Maryanne Harrison said you found her through her church because it is Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s church as well. If you were searching, as you say, for a stereotype, why did you go the church route to find your “blue?”
DF: What led me to Maryanne Harrison [was] the church connection, yes. Nancy Pelosi lives at the top of a hill, the church is halfway down hill, and at the bottom of the hill live the Harrisons…There’s no perfect choice. In the end, I tried to make the best choice I could. I don’t think anyone is, that’s the thing about stereotypes, no one really is perfectly true to it.
LCB: What was the mission here, what were you hoping this - presenting readers with stereotypes - would add to readers’ understanding of this election year?
DF: I don’t know. It’s not like I was hoping these pieces would advance or dominate or affect the public debate. I was hoping people would read them with open minds. I think there’s value every once in a while to represent a stereotype on two levels: first, to do dignity to the stereotype, not just a surface-y thing, and then to let readers use it as a kind of mirror to see themselves and what they think as they read about these people. I’ve gotten so much response, some have been really thoughtful - and I also mean thoughtful disagreements - and some have been out-and-out rants.
I suspected all along these would be the hardest pieces to do because it’s not like there’s a simple story and simple tension to be resolved. These were portraits and any time you do portraits you’re setting yourself up for broad-brushing, except in this case the goal was to find some version of a stereotype and go from there. There are honest differences between these people… They weren’t pieces to pass judgment, just pieces to try to give some depth to a stereotype.
LCB: Mr. Stein seemed to embody many stereotypical traits of a conservative living in Texas, while the “blue” family seemed less stereotypically “blue.” For example, of Stein, you wrote: “His truck is a Chevy. His beer is Bud Light. His savior is Jesus Christ.” There wasn’t really an equivalent passage in the “blue” piece. Why?
DF: I was trying to find [someone] that would react in some ways to a Britton Stein, someone who was the approximate age of Britton Stein, with children, and then who knows where the reporting goes…One of the things I like about the Harrisons, there are some similarities to Britton Stein, surface things, I liked the idea that these are a couple of pick-up drivers, here are a couple of people to whom family is important. And I guess for comparative purposes maybe I decided it’s good to have people with something in common and go from there rather than have people at such extremes.
LCB: What sort of feedback have you received on the stories?
DF: What I’ve noticed so far is both sides can be equally nasty, and now I’ll generalize: in the case of blue [respondents] the emails often include lowercase letters, like ee cummings, clauses, semicolons. In the red cases I get simple declarative sentences, “Mr. Finkel, you are an idiot”… I’ve gotten a lot of emails about a phrase I wrote about Britton: “He lives in a house that has six guns in the closets and twenty-one crosses in the main hallway.” There’s been a lot of discussion about this, people saying in that sentence there it became clear that the liberal Washington Post hung this guy out to dry. The fact is, he lives in a house that has six guns in the closets and twenty-one crosses in the main hallway.
In the end, Finkel succeeded in finding “someone who could seem like a stereotype” and writing “about what their life is like.” But we’re still skeptical about the value of confirming readers’ preconceived ideas of how a right-leaning Texan or a left-leaning San Franciscan looks, eats, reads, and relates to his family, and what this adds to readers’ understanding of election 2004. The Britton Stein piece in particular was front-loaded, unlike the piece about the Harrisons, with surface details - the very details that Finkel says he sought to go beyond - that painted an almost-cartoonish image of Stein and made it difficult to see the man beyond the stereotype.
Finkel told Campaign Desk that this series is just a beginning. “Now that we’ve done the overview and presented the stereotypes,” Finkel said, “now we do one-at-a-time pieces that go to a place where there’s some issue that suggests a useful way to look at red and blue.”
Campaign Desk looks forward to reading more about how voters feel about actual issues. But we won’t be surprised if somewhere down the line the Post finds it just cannot resist introducing its readers to a “Punk” version of Britton Stein.Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.