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.
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.)
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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