Nuance And Narrative in SC

Do national media tell local voters what to think?

I wasn’t in South Carolina long before the rush of national media arrived to cover the Democratic primary last Saturday. But even from the perspective of being there a day or two early, it was something to see the circus sweep into town. A small tent city went up opposite the statehouse in Columbia, so that TV correspondents could do their stand-ups. I overheard the teenaged girl working as a barista at the new Starbucks talking about how she planned to get up early so she could catch the Today show filming at dawn on Gervais Street. I saw the crowd at the filing center set up by the state’s Democratic Party spread out over an entire conference hall, speaking in Japanese, German, Italian, and French (to list only the languages I heard). It did seem like a traveling show, bristling with Blackberries and laptops.

Even at events (and this was due partly to Secret Service agents hovering around Clinton and Obama), the press was, literally, cordoned off and set apart from South Carolinians. At one Obama rally in Charleston, I saw reporters lean over the cordon to try to get reaction quotes. One friendly older couple—who had the good fortune, or misfortune, to be within leaning distance of the press—was interviewed by no less then six different reporters. At another event, we were stuck up in a balcony looking down at the crowd, as if we were watching a show in which the members of the audience, too, were actors.

All this left me wondering how good a job the national media are doing in capturing this primary election, in striking that precarious balance between the relevance of the race for the nation as a whole and what it meant to the people who were actually voting.

By the time I arrived in South Carolina a few narratives had come to define the contest. Race and gender were going to be the deciding factors here, we were told. Reporters scoured beauty parlors all over the state to figure out how black women would vote, since they were said to be facing an identity politics quandary: vote with their gender or with their race? African-American women, in fact, were seen as the critical undecideds who could swing the election toward Clinton or Obama. Besides the increasingly ugly sniping between the two camps—with particular attention paid to Bill Clinton’s anger and alleged misrepresentations—race was the conversation taking place on cable news and in the national papers.

I decided it would make sense to ask some local journalists whether they recognized the South Carolina they were seeing reflected in the national media, one that seemed still so racially divided.

Leroy Chapman, the political editor of The State, South Carolina’s largest paper, met with me in his newsroom as the exit polls were just coming in, showing a huge victory for Obama. He thought the stories he saw about black women were not nuanced enough, did not capture the real motivating factors behind their choice. “There was definitely some simplistic reporting about identity politics that really didn’t get into where the issues were,” he said. “The lines that were drawn had little to do with race. If you look at education, at income, at regional breakdowns, those told you a little bit more about how the choices were being made.”

Many of the local reporters I talked to thought there had been too much focus on identity politics, that it was irresistible for journalists to focus on race in a place as fraught with racial history as South Carolina; the reality, they said, isn’t so black and white, so to speak.

Just ten feet away from the Confederate flag that now flies in front, but not over, the statehouse, I sat with Anthony Palmer, an African-American resident of Columbia who blogs about politics in South Carolina. He, too, insisted that race mattered less than we were led to believe—a reality borne out by the election results, in which Obama won a sizeable percentage of white voters. Said Palmer:

I think the reason why the media focused on the race issue is because it’s good for ratings and it’s easy. It’s easy to trot out people like Jesse Jackson and Belafonte and Martin Luther King, III, and see what they have to say about this. Because that’s easy. Everybody is used to talking about black versus white. And Obama was trying really hard to not be that kind of candidate. He was trying to be the unity candidate who happens to be black. The media doesn’t know how to handle this type of candidate.

It seems the Republican race wasn’t any different. There were certain preconceptions about the South that helped form the narrative. Local reporters told me over and over again that they were annoyed that such a big deal was made about the Confederate flag after Mike Huckabee mentioned it once. John O’Conner, the lead political reporter at The State, said:

Nobody’s been talking about the Confederate flag since 2000. It was a factor in that race. But it just hasn’t been since then. As soon as someone mentioned it though, it becomes the story.

Push-polling was another issue that got blown out of proportion. Because of the attacks on John McCain in 2000, the national media expected the same dynamic to play out this year. The fact that it didn’t seemed to make no difference to journalists intent on reporting what they assumed would take place. Chatman at The State told me:

We earned our reputation for being a state where some of the politics can be pretty bare-knuckled and dirty. So I think when the national media came down there was an expectation the push polling would be ugly. But it wasn’t. It was all about economic issues and who is a true conservative, not about race, the way it was in 2000. And in the end, it had no impact on the election.

A perfect example of the national media missing the nuance was the problem of illegal immigration. I was told over and over again how important this debate was for people in South Carolina, who are struggling economically and worried about the effects of globalization. But in both the Republican and Democratic primaries, the national media failed to reflect this struggle. The Republicans had their big South Carolina debate in Myrtle Beach, a vacation town that accounts for much of the state’s tourism revenue. Even though conservative voters are the majority here, there is also an understanding, in Myrtle Beach, that much of the service work that keeps the resorts functioning is done by illegal immigrant labor. Though some voters might take as simplistic a position as the candidates do on immigration (each tried to portray themselves in that debate as the strongest and most capable of keeping the border closed), for many voters it’s more complicated and nuanced than that. As for the Democrats, illegal immigration never even entered the conversation.

Part of the problem, as I observed it at least, is that when the national reporters arrive in a place like South Carolina, they rely for their information on local journalists like the ones I spoke with to give them a sense of the place and the issues that really matter. Though these journalists certainly have more of a finger on the pulse of what’s going on, going to them should not replace actually speaking with voters.

When I met up at that new Starbucks with Brad Warthen, the editorial page editor of The State who also blogs on the newspaper’s Web site, he had just finished an interview with the U.S. government-run Arabic station, Al-Hurra. He said he’d spent half of the last two weeks talking to everyone from the BBC to a Swedish journalist. He said he always tries to refer other journalists to some of his sources, local people who might give them an idea of what regular folks are thinking. He tried, for example, to direct reporters to a local evangelical businessman who was trying to find a candidate to support after Sam Brownback dropped out of the Republican race. But no one called.

Warthen laments the focus on identity politics, and thinks that, if anything, it’s the national media’s reading of the race as black and white that has influenced many in South Carolina to see it that way, too, where they might not have otherwise:

National media is all over the place, people are nowhere near as dependent on their local media for national news as they were even in the heyday of the three national networks. But they’re dependent on whatever that cheap soundbite, oversimplistic interpretation of events might be. And they are also blind to what is going on on the ground, in the main streets of their own communities. They know more about what’s going on with these interests groups fighting each other, these bitter partisan wars in Washington than they know what happened three blocks away. It’s really had a bad effect on politics. For one thing, people have lost the vocabulary to speak about politics in any other way than these yammering, shouting, partisans. That’s what they’ve learned because that’s what they get from 24-7 TV.

So if people voted based on their skin color and not on certain issues—something Warthen, like the other reporters I spoke to, didn’t assume would happen much—this has more to do with the characterization of the election on the cable news shows they were watching: “If everyone is saying black voters are thinking of certain things, to some extent, unless they consciously rebel against that, people who think of themselves in terms of their race, ethnicity, gender or whatever, may come to define themselves in terms of what they see people they identify with saying on television.”

The irony, as he sees it, is that when CNN or MSNBC asks him what South Carolinians are thinking, all he can do is repeat the narratives he hears from the voters he talks to, narratives they learned from watching CNN or MSNBC. The circle closes.

It’s easy to be cynical. I’m not saying that the news organizations have the resources to send reporters to do deep reporting in every state into which they will eventually parachute. But there should be a wariness of falling into easy, familiar narratives. Just because it’s the South, doesn’t mean race is going to dominate. As it happened, class was a much more significant dividing line between those who voted for Obama and those who chose Clinton (something I saw explained only in one very good Wall Street Journal article). At the very least, the results of the South Carolina primary, which defied racial expectations, should make reporters and their editors pause (yes, slow down!), reflect on all the speculation they engaged in beforehand, and think about how they might be able to do it better the next time they show up in South Carolina, in 2012.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.