CHARLESTON, SC — When the House of Representatives passed a deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling last week, averting a federal default at the 11th hour, 144 Republicans voted against the bill. One of them was Mark Meadows, the once-obscure freshman congressman from North Carolina who, a few weeks ago, was dubbed “the man behind the government shutdown” by CNN.
Meadows represents more than 500,000 constituents in the rural, mountainous western part of the state—virtually the entire region except for the Democratic-leaning city of Asheville, which state Republicans excised from the district during the latest round of gerrymandering. As the shutdown played out, reporters from national and even international outlets trooped to his district, reporting on the local impact and the roots of Meadows’ political support. In Washington, other news outlets asked tough questions about his evolving positions.
Back home, though, it was something of a different story. Media outlets in Asheville and the surrounding region didn’t neglect the story of the shutdown: Early on, the coverage delivered the basics on Meadows’ stance. In the last days before the crisis was resolved, the local impact was front-page news. And after the deal was struck, the congressman was all over local news explaining his position. Occasionally, local coverage—especially in columns or the editorial page—shone, parsing Meadows’ rhetoric and asking tough questions about the strategy he and his colleagues in the House were pursuing.
But in general, local reporting before, during, and after the shutdown missed opportunities to explain to Meadows’ constituents what his role was, to ask tough questions about his evolving stance, and to create conditions for accountability. As John Boyle, reporter and columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, told me over the weekend about local coverage of Meadows’ shifting positions: “He sort of got a bit of a pass.”
The moniker CNN gave Meadows—“architect of the brink”—is probably overstated. But he did play a key role, drafting a a formal letter in July that was signed by some 79 of his conservative colleagues (with a boost from some urging by advocacy group Heritage Action, as Slate’s Dave Weigel notes here). The letter called on House Speaker John Boehner to “affirmatively de-fund the implementation and enforcement of ObamaCare in any relevant appropriations bill brought to the House floor in the 113th Congress, including any continuing appropriations bill.”
Boehner listened to the demand. But of course, such a bill was unacceptable to the Democrats who control the Senate and the White House, and who had spent the last four years passing and beginning to implement national healthcare reform.
So on Oct. 1, the government shut down—and about at that point, Meadows began scrambling away from any insinuation that he had a hand in it. As the shutdown was unfolding he blamed the media for sensationalizing his role, denied he ever wanted the government to shut down in the first place, and even implied the stalemate in Washington had nothing to do with President Barack Obama’s national healthcare law. In an interview with the local Hendersonville Times-News after the deal to re-open government was struck, he accused CNN reporter Leigh Ann Caldwell of taking his words out of context and cutting his quotes to “tell her story” in the piece that brought him so much prominence. (A CNN spokesperson told CJR the network stands by its report.) And in early October, Meadows told the Citizen-Times’ Boyle: “There’s not a single quote, nor have I said to anyone that I wanted a shutdown.”
For readers of the Asheville paper, all these protests might have induced whiplash—that is, if they recalled an Aug. 27 headline, “Meadows would close DC to stop Obamacare.” This was the lede of Jon Ostendorff’s story:
US Rep. Mark Meadows got boos and applause when he told a crowd at a town hall meeting Tuesday that he would support shutting down the government to stop Obamacare.