NORTH CAROLINA — Here in Charlotte, the longtime second fiddle of the New South, the idea of conflict is a little foreign. Local self-narratives cherish the ideal of a cooperative, civil society. So as the city prepares for its star turn as the host of the Democratic National Convention this September, there’s excitement—but also awkwardness at being thrust in to the center of national political debate.
On Thursday, one of those turns in the national spotlight occurred, courtesy of an article at The Huffington Post. At lunchtime, the story was splashed across the homepage under the headline, “Party Like It’s 1929” and accompanied a historical image of a labor rally. The story, by Jason Cherkis and local journalist Rhi Fionn, opened with a recitation of the city’s booster themes before quickly moving on to the conflict:
Whatever the considerations in the choice, a lot about Charlotte goes unmentioned: double-digit unemployment, overflowing homeless shelters and North Carolina’s notorious restrictions on labor unions.
What followed was an odd hodgepodge of some potential trouble spots for the site of the Democratic convention: North Carolina’s status as a “right-to-work” state; a rehash of Charlotte’s status as Banktown (the football stadium where President Obama will speak is branded by Bank of America), an account of one person’s struggle with homelessness and some narrative about the growing problem, plus mentions of food deserts and the logistical control of uptown Charlotte by convention organizers.
The reality? Charlotte sits somewhere between the Huffington Post’s grim presentation, accented by an old black-and-white photo, and the official persona of a united, rebounding, shining, and green New South city. It’s a bank town that is finally digging out of the Great Recession, with rising home sales and falling (though still high) unemployment. The city, also home to Duke Energy and recently, Chiquita, has institutions with legacies of working together on social issues like school integration. The bust years have frayed the edges of the self-image of a can-do city at times, compounded perhaps by a lack of public honesty about some problems, like that persistent unemployment. Now, city leaders are waking up to the idea that growth and vibrancy don’t just flow from large corporations and are encouraging small businesses and tech startups. It’s a work in progress.
And a few journalists out of the national glare present that truer story, every day, through consistent, on-the-ground reporting, writing, and analysis. Their work appears in local media outlets that have beefed up for the convention as well as national outlets seeking local flavor. I’m not talking here about the journalists at the major McClatchy papers in Raleigh and Charlotte, who professionally document the big political stories of visiting national candidates while juggling bread-and-butter stories about state and local races. For the moment, I’m focusing on other voices that flesh out the political story and add to the region’s sense of itself.
Here are four of those voices:
Mary Curtis: While HuffPost was portraying Charlotte as a city in conflict, Curtis published a column at The Washington Post’s “She the People” site that reflected the long-standing work that Charlotte leaders do to build bridges. She participated in, and wrote about, a community meeting at Little Rock AME Zion Church that was convened to discuss the Trayvon Martin case. Her columns regularly give voice to those who show up at events to discuss directly, and with civility, tough issues. The freelancer has written about topics as diverse as Muslims in Charlotte and a local lecture from Anita Hill. Curtis also appears on Fox News Rising and is a contributor to The Root, NPR, Creative Loafing in Charlotte, and the Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, The Charlotte Observer, and Politics Daily. She’s on Twitter as @mcurtisnc3.
Susan Stabley: Stabley, a reporter for The Charlotte Business Journal, regularly covers the business of the Democratic National Convention, logging in openings for summer interns, deadlines for vendors, awarding of transportation contracts, and important visitors from out of town like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the pending chair of the convention .Once in awhile, she gets to write about the fun stuff, like Jon Stewart’s plans to rent a Charlotte library during the convention. She juggles that work with stories on residential real estate, growth, and the environment. Some of her work is behind a pay wall; it’s worth it. Twitter: @CBJGreennews.
Jarvis Holliday: Holliday freelances at many places, now most consistently now at Charlotte Magazine’s “The DNC In The CLT” feature. He logs in the mixers and fundraisers ahead of the convention, acknowledges the out-of-town visitors like Villaraigosa with blog posts and video, keeps people aware of scheduling changes related to the convention, and curates national media stories. He also appears in Creative Loafing of Charlotte at times and maintains his own blog, Grown People Talking. Twitter handle: @hollidayink.
Michael Bitzer: Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., and not a journalist in the traditional sense, provides analysis at “The Party Line,” allied with WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station. He focuses on the numbers about voters, presenting wonky but clear maps and charts based on exit-poll data that even go down to the precinct level for Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located. For those who are interested in quantitative analysis of election information, Bitzer’s the guy. He’s on Twitter as @catawbapolitics and is well connected there—I learned of Osama bin Laden’s capture from his feed.
This small group varies widely: Bitzer’s focus on precise quantification, presented without opinion, is far removed from the immersive technique of Curtis, who shares her personal insights as a member of the community tackling tough issues. Together, the niches they fill present a fuller picture of Charlotte’s preparation the convention this fall, and of how the city wrestles with national issues.
Charlotte is a big small town (which means yes, I know each one of these journalists personally); it’s sometimes been described as almost too polite. Fionn, the local journalist who shared a byline on Thursday’s HuffPost story, is one of those who challenge that politesse, rightfully focusing on issues that could become invisible if ignored publicly.
But the broad portrayal of Charlotte as a struggling city lags behind the realities of current local economic data (written up by Stabley and others), which show a recovery beginning to take hold. And the idea of a city in conflict is too premature, ignoring Charlotte’s genuine tradition of cooperative problem solving.
During this lull in the presidential action for North Carolina, the narrative might be a little dull without manufactured conflict, but the climax of the story will provide plenty of drama later this year. Those on the ground, slogging through the turns of the screw in business and social events, analyzing the data, and immersing themselves in community forums, help capture Charlotte’s story. Journalists don’t need to invent drama and conflict now. It will come soon enough.