It’s a Bittersweet Symphony…

PA voters: to be (bitter) or not to be (bitter)

Ah, BitterGate. Everything you’re not supposed to talk about at parties—religion! class! “liberal elitism”! the Second Amendment!—all rolled into one neat little Political Scandal. Just in case you missed it, here’s Barack Obama, inserting proverbial foot into proverbial mouth while speaking about the rough economy and small-town voters at a fundraiser last week: “It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Which…yeah. And Obama’s “cling” rap is, itself, certainly clinging. Over the weekend, fallout from the comment dominated the news cycle, with reports and retorts and retorts to the retorts and retorts to the retorts to the retorts and…well, you get the idea. At its heart, though, the whole thing begged one obvious question: “What do the voters think?” Are voters in Pennsylvania really, you know, bitter?

Well, hmm…whom to ask? Who, oh who, might be intimately familiar with the Mind of the Small-Town Voter?

Why, Bob Shrum, of course! And Mary Matalin and James Carville and Mike Murphy! And Evan Bayh! And pollster and Franklin and Marshall College political scientist Terry Madonna! And Brookings senior fellow Thomas Mann! And Brian Davis, a Republican candidate seeking to challenge targeted Rep. Tim Walz in the fall! And nearly every strategist imaginable from the Obama, Clinton, and McCain campaigns!

Which, hey—it’s fine to go macro. Experts are experts for a reason; the logic-of-superdelegates has its translation in journalism, as well. Still, though, there’s a conspicuous absence in much of the Analyses of the Minds of Pennsylvania Voters: the, um, Pennsylvania voters themselves. Wouldn’t it have been nice, at least in some instances, to remove the middlemen? Man-on-the-street reporting may get you only so far, sure, when you’re trying to predict the results of a statewide—and, of course, national—election. But there’s an especially perverse kind of logic—not to mention a healthy heaping of hubris—in asking pundits to read voters’ minds when you could, just as easily, ask the voters themselves about what they’re thinking. And that logic is rendered particularly ironic when applied to a story about…elitism.

Enter Fox News’s Laura Ingle, who went, as she’s wont to do, “On the Scene” to talk to voters:

So, this morning, we packed up our cameras and live truck and are heading to Allentown (we are all in the truck now listening to Billy Joel’s song “Allentown” as I write this to get us in the mood….) We are almost to our location—a diner where many locals hang, and are going to talk to them about what Obama said and how they feel about it.

My opening line? “are you bitter?” This should be interesting…. stay tuned

Now, sure, the level of anthropological self-congratulation here is a bit absurd: from all the talk of camera-packing and live-trucking, you’d think Ingle and her crew were on their way to a Safari Adventure—Jane Goodall et al, ready to explore the wilds of…Allentown. Still, Ingle deserves praise for actually going out and talking to voters: while she might not have needed Kilimanjaro-ready hiking boots for this particular reporting expedition, at least her approach involved some shoe leather. And the team got some good footage of voters explaining/affirming/denying/decrying their alleged bitterness.

For my money, though, the best part of Ingle’s “investigation” was after-the-fact journalism: the comments it triggered online. While many journalists—traditional reporters and bloggers alike—consulted pundits and other “experts” to flesh out their BitterGate reports, Ingle’s audience simply consulted…themselves. And then hit the “comment” button.

Here’s jmkinpa:

Had a discussion with a group of my friends yesterday - some are Democrats and some Republicans plus a couple of Independents. Ages from 45 to 60 - some better off financially than others. We pay our taxes and do whatever it takes to make ends meet. We all agree times are tough - each of us have been down and out during our lifetimes sometimes several times. But you know what? - we all worked our fannies off and got back on our feet again.

Your Reporter seems to be locked into the word “Bitter” in her question. I am not “Bitter” but all of my friends and I are “Very Disappointed and Disgusted” in the treatment , policies and actions of our goverment [sic] over the past several decades. Obama keeps stating “Change” in his well written speeches but if you have an IQ greater than your shoe size - you know words are cheap especially politians’ [sic] words. Personally, I wouldn’t buy a used car from the guy.

Criticize him or his buddy Wright and you’re a bigot - object to illegal immigration and you’re a bigot - disagree with welfare policies and you’re a bigot. Support our troops and we’re idiot hicks, believe in the Bill of Rights as they were written and we’re behind the times, practice our religious beliefs and we’re “clinging” to false hope, believe that laws should be enforced equally without the race factor being brought into it and we’re inhumane.

“Bitter” - NO ! Lost faith in our goverment - YES.

And here’s sam:

People are bitter because our lifestyles, homes, and communities are under attack.

Some have turned to marriage, immigration, and gun laws to protect ourselves and what’s left of our dignity.

But immigrants, gays, and guns aren’t the problem — it’s Clinton’s and Bush’s economic policies that are killing us.

And here’s Helen:

Am I bitter? Yes I am. I’m bitter that the WIFE of a politician makes a little over $100,000 at her job but once her husband is elected her SALARY goes up to over $300,000!!!! I’m bitter that people who are making at least a HALF a million dollars a YEAR only give 1% to charity and that the charity who received most of that 1% is a church that speaks about racism and hating America! I’m bitter that the same politician can speak about me like I’m a second class citizen because I don’t earn enough money.

Bitter? You bet I am!! But it’s not because I cling to my religion or want to own a gun! It’s because high class politicians come out of nowhere and INSULT me and my intelligence!

And here’s Jenn:

I live in “small town America.” When one of the largest employers of our area, Phillips, an electronic manufacturing plant, relocated to Mexico people became bitter and frustrated, they turned to their faith and those rights they could protect. Many opted for early retirement, sacrificing their level of retirement pay in order to keep their health insurance. Any presidential nominee that says people in small town America are not bitter and clinging to the things that bring them comfort have not spoken to these retirees who ended up losing their health insurance anyway. To say that these people are not bitter demonstrates a candidate’s lack of empathy for small town Americans.

Not to be too “gee, look what the Internet lets us do” about it—but BitterGate makes a telling example of the interactivity of the Web compensating for a basic deficiency in traditional newsgathering. The comments are certainly worth a read; they flesh out, in ways that many traditional news outlets have not, the voter attitudes those latter outlets were (nominally) attempting to illuminate. Still, they beg as many questions as they answer: is this where Web journalism is going—a corollary to the whole Mullet Strategy of Web posting? Is the voter perspective getting edged out of stories in favor of expert analysis, with the former relegated to the party-in-the-back of the Comments section? Are we seeing a democratization of political analysis—or the opposite? Will the User-on-the-Web soon render the Man-on-the-Street obsolete?

As Laura Ingle might say, “This should be interesting….stay tuned.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.