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.