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.)
If Meadows was mostly missing from local coverage during the shutdown, he was all over it in the days after a deal was struck. In addition to the story in the Times-News, he sat for an interview with WLOS News 13 in Asheville and spoke at a local Republican Party event that was covered by The News Herald of Morganton. In every instance, he was on message: he never wanted the shutdown, but he voted against the agreement to end it because it didn’t provide a permanent fix and it preserved “a special subsidy” on Obamacare for members of Congress and their staffs.
By reporting on Meadows’ vote and his rationale for it, these stories had value, and the Times-News story recounted Meadows’ role with the letter. But none of the pieces featured critical sources, or any sources other than Meadows, and none made a serious effort to scrutinize his account. And while the conservative National Review has written that objections about a “special handout” for Congress are “based on a misunderstanding,” none of the local coverage I’ve reviewed has challenged Meadows’ explanation for his vote against the deal. These are more missed opportunities.
If most of the local post-deal coverage was a little too solicitous of what Meadows had to say, that wasn’t a problem for Boyle of the Citizen-Times—because the congressman didn’t respond to his interview request. (“I suspect my last column about his involvement in the shutdown might have chilled our relationship a bit,” Boyle wrote in his latest column over the weekend.)
Boyle is a general assignment reporter who primarily does enterprise work and writes a weekly column—a hybrid role he enjoys, which was created by newsroom cuts. When we spoke, he said he wondered if his paper could have picked up on the momentum behind Meadows’ letter earlier. The absence at the moment of a Gannett DC reporter with responsibility for the region may have shaped the coverage.
Boyle’s latest column might not help him win back any friends in the congressman’s office. Headlined “Meadows wanted it both ways,” it calls on the politician to “own his involvement in this debacle.” And while Boyle writes that Meadows was elected by a “tea party constituency,” he concludes with the hope that ” he remembers the middle is out there, too.”
Maybe that will happen; more likely it won’t. Certainly there are many voters in Meadows’ district who want the sort of representation he’s providing. But those voters—and everybody else—deserve local coverage that asks hard questions, seeks out critical sources, and makes clear both what their congressman is doing and why he’s doing it.
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