Boyle, who delivered the strongest local coverage, didn’t forget, and he called out the congressman in his column: whatever Meadows might be saying now, he wrote, “he did help get the shutdown ball rolling.” Some other local coverage was clear on this point too. This well-informed Times-News editorial in September noted Meadows was “leading the charge to defund health care reform, commonly known as Obamacare, even if it means shutting down the federal government.” A strong September piece by McClatchy’s North Carolina correspondent reported that Meadows “instigated the push” that led to the crisis, even as he said a shutdown was not the goal. A later Times-News column described Meadows as “one of the primary leaders in linking defunding Obamacare to the budget impasse, which led directly to the shutdown.”
But those were the exceptions. If you were to search the websites of the smaller local papers in the region for shutdown coverage in the days before the deal, you’d have found: press releases from Meadows (The High Country Press and The Black Mountain News), reports on which government parks are closed that make no mention of Meadows (Smoky Mountain Times), reports on the shutdown’s impact on school lunch funding that make no mention of Meadows (The Cherokee Scout), and excerpts from CNN’s piece without original reporting (alt-weekly Mountain Xpress).
News coverage in the Times-News, the region’s most substantive and sophisticated paper outside of Asheville, was especially notable for what it did and didn’t do. The clear writing in the paper’s editorial pages about Meadows’ role was missing from news articles. One day toward the end of the shutdown, the paper led with a front-page news story on the effect the shutdown was having on area child care centers, where some 500 children would lose federal subsidies for daycare. The piece mentioned Meadows as a local congressman whom a young mother called seeking answers—but made no mention of his role in the shutdown. Another piece in the same edition reported on a social justice center’s petition to Meadows to end the shutdown, but similarly didn’t explain his role in bringing it about.
The best local work came from the Gannett-owned Citizen-Times. In addition to Boyle’s column and Ostendorff’s town hall report, the paper ran stories by Ostendorff tracking Meadows’ national media appearances and covering a FreedomWorks rally in support of Meadows, where he found a 15-year-old worried about Obamacare’s tax on medical devices. As CJR’s Deron Lee has noted, this sort of reporting surpasses what’s available in many rural congressional districts. But even at the Citizen-Times the news coverage was less enterprising and aggressive than it could have been, given the scale of the issue, the local impact, and Meadows’ central role.
More scrutiny and even more enterprise reporting came from regional, national, or even international media—especially, but not only, of the left-leaning variety. Major outlets pointed to his back-pedaling and muddled message (Salon) and bird-dogged him about his stance (NPR). McClatchy followed up on “the North Carolina Republicans who helped pick this fight.” Both Al Jazeera America and The Guardian focused on an irony of the situation: the shutdown hampered tourism in the Blue Ridge Mountain region that runs through Meadows’ district. The operator of an inn located on federal property had his business shut down by park rangers, and had to seek a court order before he was allowed to re-open during prime leaf-peeping season. (He is a firm Meadows supporter.) Even The Washington Post showed up for a by-the-numbers piece about local reaction in Meadows’ district.
Perhaps the best thing written during the entire episode came from The Guardian’s Paul Lewis, who delivered a rich, detailed on-the-ground narrative from Meadows’ region. Lewis attended a celebration for the inn’s re-opening, which had become a celebrated cause in conservative circles, and snagged an interview with Asheville Tea Party chair Jane Bilello. He wrote:
But the Tea Party shows no signs of relenting, and here in North Carolina’s 11th district, Bilello is unapologetic about the influence she wields over her congressman. “Just before I came here, my phone was ringing, and it was Mark,” she said. “He said, Jane, I gotta talk to you about what is going on with the debt ceiling.”
This is just the sort of reporting on the role of “key activists and party figures” in the shutdown/debt ceiling crisis that CJR’s Brendan Nyhan called on local outlets to deliver—and it came from a British publication. (For an outstanding in-state piece that delivers the goods on a different North Carolina Tea Party pol tied to the shutdown, check out Rob Christensen’s Oct. 12 column in the Raleigh News & Observer on Rep. Renee Ellmers.)