So, you’re a member of the national media tasked with heading to west Texas to capture for your non-west Texas audience a flavor of the very small place where Gov. Rick Perry grew up—the place, as The New York Times had it Monday, that “anchors [Perry’s] origin story”? Drawing from the Times’s report and a similar one from Monday’s CBS Evening News, here are ten tips for news organizations plotting their own Paint Creek datelines.
1) Find the right reporter for the job. For CBS News, Chicago-based National Correspondent Dean Reynolds was The Guy. “Paint Creek, a place so small Dean Reynolds tells us it stumped the GPS,” said CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley Monday night, by way of introducing Reynolds’s report. First thing Reynolds did (after he found the place) was fret about its native critters, like so:
REYNOLDS: Deep in the Lone Star State in the middle of the middle of nowhere lies the community of Paint Creek, a place of quiet roads, vast horizons, merciless heat and a few other things.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have rattlesnake, but you just watch out for them.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes.
REYNOLDS: Fire ants?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes. You’re probably standing in some.
REYNOLDS: Yeah, well, I hope not.
The New York Times gave its Paint Creek assignment to the writerly Deborah Sontag—maybe you know her from her Port-au-Prince datelines. If Sontag got lost on her way to Paint Creek or felt spooked by slithering, stinging things, readers are not told.
2) Note the dearth of things in Paint Creek. From the Times: Perry hails from “a county with one stoplight.” And, CBS News: Paint Creek is a place with “no post office, no grocery, no claim to fame until now.”
3) For backhanded compliments about Rick Perry, locate Perry’s school classmate/frenemy, Phil Coleman. Coleman to the Times’s Sontag: “[Perry’s] not a genius, but he’s got problem-solving skills.” CBS News’s Reynolds to Coleman: “You didn’t have [Perry] marked for greatness I guess?” Coleman to Reynolds: “He might have had himself marked for greatness.”
4) To confirm your suspicions about the happy struggle of living life in a place like Paint Creek, track down Paint Creek resident Wallar Overton. (The guy you’ve read about in Perry’s 2008 book, On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For. You’ve read the book, right?) From CBS News’s report:
REYNOLDS: Wallar Overton is a wheat farmer without a crop this year because of a drought as bad as any can remember, but even in good times it’s a struggle in Paint Creek.
Is it a hard life?
REYNOLDS: And you like it that way?
OVERTON: Oh, yes.
The Times’s Sontag also found Overton, and she got from him what became her anecdotal lede, about Perry’s first campaign (for “the office of Halloween King”) and how Perry “won it with payola” (penny candy). For Sontag, Overton also “rolled his eyes at the governor’s depiction of a ‘war on the [Boy] Scouts’ being waged by atheists and ‘activist homosexuals.’”
5) Come up with an alternative way to say, “Paint Creek is small.” Sontag, for the Times, opted for “itty-bitty.” CBS’s Reynolds, perhaps stumped, went with: “to say [Paint Creek] is small is an understatement.”
6) For sure flip through Perry’s high school yearbooks. This allows you to use the phrase “Judging by the school yearbooks…,” as did Sontag (who finished that sentence with “…[Perry] never made honor roll.”) Note the number of kids in Perry’s class (13, by both Sontag’s and Reynolds’s counts). Get a photo of young Perry to include in your piece.
7) Consider what you will do if you encounter some folks in Paint Creek who aren’t Perry for President enthusiasts. You might briefly reference them, as on CBS News: “There’s a difference of opinion in Paint Creek about Rick Perry’s appeal as a candidate.” Or, you might make a theme of them, as did the Times: Paint Creek, reported Sontag, is a place that “no longer wholeheartedly embraces Perry.” Indeed some residents, Sontag writes, are “leery now of seeing Haskell County used as a bucolic backdrop for [Perry’s] self-promotion.”
8) Don’t depart without photographing the building with “Paint Creek Texas” painted in cursive on one side.
9) Get swept away. Let Paint Creek pull prose from you like the gentle tug of a breeze on the Texas plains. Here’s Sontag: “Perry attended school in a one-story building framed by mulberry trees on flat land where the whoosh of the wind is interrupted only by chattering blackbirds.” Reynolds—this is not as easy on TV!—mused about the “certain self-sufficiency in Perry that’s bred into people out here.”
10) Finally, don’t bother contacting Gov. Perry’s mother, Amelia Perry, who still lives in Paint Creek. Sontag already tried calling her and was told by Mrs. Perry, “Ma’am, I don’t do reporters.”
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.