Tim Jones is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He spent the presidential campaign covering the state of Missouri, and was formerly the paper’s media reporter. He has written for Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. Jones spoke with Campaign Desk as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators who covered the presidential election.
Zachary Roth: A lot of the post-election analysis focused on cultural issues as a big reason for Bush’s win. As someone who covered a red state that passed an initiative against gay marriage [Missouri’s initiative passed in August], what’s your take on that?
Tim Jones: Culture is a big deal in red states and blue — color’s got nothing to do with it. If you look at the pre-election polls on the gay marriage proposals, they got support [in the] upper 50s, low 60s, mid-60s. These are the kind of issues that resonate with an awful lot of voters, regardless of whether they live in a red state or a blue state.
ZR: Do you think that some of the reporters from, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post, because they’re coming from northeast, urban areas, missed some of what was going on in the red states?
TJ: You don’t want to single people out, but I think that whenever we do political reporting, we need to pay more attention to what’s going on at the ground level, and talk to people and get their view of what they think. And I think that that was a failing of campaign coverage this year. But I don’t know that any one or two or three papers or news outlets are any more guilty than anybody else. I think all of us need to pay more attention to what voters are saying and get an appreciation of what the mood is on the ground.
ZR: When the Missouri [gay marriage] ballot initiative passed, did that strike you as a warning of what could come in November?
TJ: I think it convinced me that at least in Missouri, there was a strong cultural undercurrent, and revulsion, against that particular issue. And Missouri’s one of these states that embodies a lot of the components of the United States … I think that was a tip-off that cultural issues were important, but I think in the post-election analysis there is this danger [of saying] that this was all driven by evangelical conservatives, or that this was a big vote drawn out by revulsion against gay marriage. It’s a lot of things. It’s patriotism, it’s the war, it’s those things that we’ve all mentioned. When you talk about moral values, I think there is this tendency in the media to narrowly define it, but people have different versions of how they see moral values, and I learned that from traveling around Missouri. Just about everybody has a different interpretation of what moral values means.
ZR: And people have been saying that you can’t separate moral values from the war on terror, for instance, because that in itself plays into how they see the candidates’ morality.
TJ: Right, and some people define values as equality, as a good paying job, as making sure that you can go to bed at night and if you’re sick you’ve got health care to take care of it. These are definitions that go all over the place, which is why I think we need to be careful in this post-election period how we interpret what values are because they’re all over the lot, and they mean different things to different people.
ZR: Where were you in Missouri?
TJ: I was all over. I made quite a few trips there and I got to all the major cities. I got to every section of the state. I put several thousand miles on rental cars … I saw an awful lot of the state.
ZR: What did you think about the way the press in general covered the campaign?
TJ: Well, I’m not in the best position to make a judgment about how the press covered the campaign, because I was spending an awful lot of time out there covering it myself. So I think maybe someone who has taken the broad view would be in a better position to give you answer to that, because I don’t think I’m qualified to say.
One thing on culture: I’m old enough to remember the campaign in 1968, and what we saw this time around reminded me a lot of what I remember from 1968, because it was a time when the nation was split apart on civil rights and on the sexual revolution and on the war. And this time around you had gay rights and the war and the whole lingering thing over abortion, which did not exist as a major issue in 1968. So in a lot of ways the country was torn apart in ways that it was 36 years ago. And it makes it difficult to try to get a handle on … why it is we did get the outcome that we did. In my own mind, I think one of the things that sticks out in conversations that I had with people is that a lot of folks would say, “you know, I’m really not that comfortable with George Bush, I think the economy is not going well, I think it was a huge mistake to go into Iraq, but I’m really not comfortable with changing commanders-in-chief in the middle of the game. And we’re there and maybe we ought to try to fix it.” And I think that is a vastly underestimated influence in the outcome. And that’s … getting overlooked by all of the attention to family values, or moral values, or values in general.
ZR: It almost seems like there’s an attraction to the moral values explanation because it makes people on the left feel that they’re more sophisticated.
TJ: I did a piece in Missouri where there was a debate between two competing communities in southwest Missouri, which is at the heart of the Bible Belt, Branson and this small town. And the small town wanted to have a gambling casino. And they put it on the ballot, and then prior to the vote, you had people in Branson saying, “Well our values are better than your values.” And hell, this was a town that’s 15 miles away. It’s not as if Missouri’s pointing at Massachusetts. It was really wacky.Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.