NORTH CAROLINA — As the results of the Super Tuesday primaries put Republican candidates in the headlines, President Obama is making his own bid for news coverage today. Obama is traveling to the town of Mount Holly, where he will speak at a Daimler Trucks manufacturing plant. He is expected to address the twin themes of energy and the economy, highlighting policy programs that encourage more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Mount Holly is 12 miles west of Charlotte, where Obama will formally accept his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in early September. The convention location, and a recent string of visits by Obama and his allies, are widely viewed as strategic moves to bolster Democrats’ chances in a key swing state: North Carolina barely fell into the Obama column in 2008—the first time a Democrat won the state since 1976—and 2012 will be close.
That strategic frame, and the horse race emphasis that accompanies it, have shaped some of the advance coverage of Obama’s quick official visit to the state. On the eve of the president’s arrival, one news report, from the McClatchy Washington bureau, carried the headline, “Is Obama running scared in North Carolina?” (The story ran in print in The Charlotte Observer as a three-paragraph box with the headline, “GOP rips visit.”)
At the other extreme is coverage that plays these visits as pageantry or theater. Just five days ago, Charlotte media gave Michelle Obama strong visual coverage during a fundraising visit that coincided with the CIAA basketball tournament. Mount Holly sits in the shadow of the Charlotte media market, and the Obama campaign must be hoping for plenty of television and print coverage that frames the president in small-town North Carolina.
But other approaches exist. Journalists can use their moment in the national spotlight of a swing state to go beyond horse race language, and beyond the rhetoric Obama is sure to deliver at a scripted appearance, to probe the issues that matter here.
Reporting and writing well about issues like energy independence and the global economy requires skill and time, but it can be done. Mount Holly’s hometown newspaper, The Gaston Gazette, owned by Freedom Communications, provided a great example of how to tell the complex manufacturing story in late February. Ragan Robinson’s report starts simply:
If you live in a manufacturing community, you’ve talked about and heard about and lamented for decades the loss of jobs overseas.
And the chances are good you’ve heard a lot about the idea that the U.S. rewards companies for moving plants and jobs to other countries.
More difficult than agreeing we need jobs and industry in this country—and this community—is understanding why we lose them in the first place. Or how in the world we ever passed laws that actually reward companies for shifting production to foreign economies.
And that’s where the debate gets touchy, mainly because that’s where it gets political.
At the moment, the Daimler Trucks plant in Mount Holly serves as a poster child for a U.S. resurgence in manufacturing jobs. But with context, the economic story becomes more complex. This one company’s history illustrates issues surrounding global trade policy, U.S. worker resentment of those from other countries, and falling wages.
“Even if there are successes, we should also recognize that there are still many problems facing the state’s labor market,” said John Quinterno, who runs a public policy research firm, South by North Strategies Ltd., in Chapel Hill. He hopes that journalists go beyond business ribbon-cuttings, explaining jobs and trade in a broader policy context. “This is a global dynamic,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Part of the Daimler Trucks story
That context might come through a close look at the company whose plant Obama will visit today. Daimler Trucks North America, a division of a German company, makes the Freightliner brand of trucks. Freightliner plants are one of the few places in right-to-work North Carolina with a history of union activism, with a wildcat strike in Gaston County in 2007. For some, the 2007 strike brought back painful memories of deadly textile mill strikes in 1934.
In January 2010, after waves of layoffs and protests with some workers wearing sombreros, an arbitrator ruled that Daimler violated its agreement with United Auto Workers when it cut production in North Carolina and shifted work to Mexico. The arbitration forced Daimler to compensate workers and increase production in Mount Holly.
That same month, the company announced it had received a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to improve vehicle efficiency. Fourth months later, the union and Daimler agreed on a new contract, with worker concessions, and jobs began to grow. By January 2011, the Mount Holly plant celebrated the milestone of building its 1,000th hybrid truck.