Of all those states, of course, Ohio has emerged as a national bellwether—as the one state a presidential candidate cannot afford to lose. In recognition of that fact, journalists from across the country trooped there in the weeks and months leading up to the 2004 election. Even so, the returns on Election Day left many journalists flummoxed. Ekstrand recalls getting calls and e-mails from her East Coast colleagues asking, “What’s up in Ohio? How could so many people have voted for Bush?” I myself remember how frustrated I felt reading and watching columnists and talking heads as they parsed the data from the exit polls. The confidence with which they opined seemed inversely proportional to the amount of time they’d spent on the ground in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri.
“You can’t parachute in, go to Main Street, and talk to two or three people,” observes Mitch Weiss, a Bronx native who spent nearly twenty years in the Midwest working for the AP and the Toledo Blade before moving to The Charlotte Observer in 2005. People at national news organizations “think the sun rises and sets in New York” and so, for the most part, “ignore what’s going on in the heartland.”
The coverage of the Midwest is becoming even thinner than in the past because of all the crippling cutbacks in the news business. In bygone years, the nation’s top papers had bureaus latticing the region. Now, most cover the Midwest much as they do the Mideast, out of one major bureau (Chicago here, Jerusalem there) fed by stringers. Meanwhile, top regional papers like the Des Moines Register, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which once prided themselves on quality investigative work, have cut back on their digging, and that has reduced the amount and quality of news flowing up to the national level.
So what are we missing as a result? If a national paper or network were based in the Midwest, what stories would get more attention? Religion, for one. Midwesterners (like southerners) tend to be far more godfearing, churchgoing, and tithe-giving than people on the East or West coasts. They also tend to adhere to more evangelical forms of their faith. To the extent that America has in recent years been undergoing another Great Awakening, as many observers believe, it arose in part in the megachurches and seminaries of Indiana and Illinois, Kansas and Kentucky. As that wave spread across the country, it helped shift the center of the nation’s political gravity to the right. The effect has been especially noticeable in the Republican Party, moving it from the moderate Episcopalianism of George H.W. Bush to the born-again Methodism of George W. Bush. Editors and reporters in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles were late in grasping that and have had to play catch-up. A national news organization based in the Midwest would have been on to this change from the start.
Higher education would be covered differently as well. Editors and reporters at top news organizations often seem fixated on Ivy League schools and how to get into them. Midwesterners (like most Americans) seem less preoccupied. Many attend state schools; many are the first generation in their families to attend college. For them, the anxiety associated with college is focused less on early admission and advanced placement than on the challenge of meeting ever-rising tuition fees. Students avail themselves of such options as “two plus two”—attending community college for two years, then transferring to a four-year college for the remaining two—and “distance education,” in which they take courses online or otherwise seek degrees at a distance from the institution offering them. According to Melissa Spirek, an associate professor of journalism at Bowling Green, distance education now consumes a tenth of that university’s entire budget—to the consternation of many faculty members, who believe it can’t substitute for on-site schooling. Despite its growing importance, the phenomenon has received limited attention in the national news media.