Context, and Political Theater, in North Carolina

Why the press needs to tell the parts of the story Obama won’t

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.

New workers at Daimler plants these days start at about $12 or $13 an hour, and face lower pay ceilings than workers who are governed by earlier agreements, according to The Gaston Gazette. While plenty of North Carolina jobs offer lower entry salaries, that starting rate is generally not enough to qualify for a mortgage, even in small-town North Carolina.

Finding context amid the scripts

That short timeline presents a more complicated, mixed picture of the complexities involved in creating well-paid jobs in North Carolina than the president is likely to provide today. So does this state’s history: North Carolina has a long tradition of bidding low on labor costs, using that technique to lure textile mills from New England starting in the late 1800s; Mount Holly was one of those towns that grew up around a textile mill. But that strategy has historically failed to deliver a long-term solution.

And then there’s the broader state of the North Carolina economy. The Daimler success story of the moment can’t hide the economic hurdles the state still faces. Unemployment in the county where Mount Holly is located hovers near 11 percent. Quinterno’s end-of-year employment report showed that in December 2011, only 55.6 percent of working-age North Carolinians had jobs.

Journalists owe the state, and the nation, this broader context, and a closer look at the nuances of global trade that shape job opportunities here—none of which is likely to emerge from scripted visits and campaign rhetoric. Finding the capacity and the time to do that work won’t be easy. News organizations are no exception to the battering this state’s economy has experienced. And the knowledge that comes from routine beat reporting in the areas outside of North Carolina’s cities has become rare. North Carolina is big, as wide as Florida is long, with lots of rural and suburban areas without journalists dedicated to coverage of specific areas.

But this work begins with a commitment to the effort, and a decision not to let the horse race or the pageantry—both of which have their place—dominate coverage. Otherwise, the state becomes a mere backdrop for political theater.

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Andria Krewson is an independent journalist in Charlotte and a student in the University of North Carolina's master of arts in technology and digital communication. She worked at The Charlotte Observer for many years. Find her on Twitter at or