DETROIT, MI — It goes like this: a local reporter digs deep and turns out a substantive story. Then a national reporter swoops into town for a few hours or a day, with little knowledge or experience of the community. To meet a tight deadline, he or she borrows facts from the local reporting, but misses a cringe-worthy amount of context. When the national piece is published for a large audience (often not crediting local media), it is full of errors and distortions.
This is parachute reporting, and it has a bad name in journalism circles. But parachute reporting can be done right, and it’s an inevitable and even essential part of the American media landscape. A couple recent works of journalism about Wisconsin show the symbiosis between local and national reporting—and how strong local coverage can inform the national political conversation.
In “The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker,” a recent cover story for The New Republic, senior writer Alec MacGillis explores the deep racial and partisan divide in metropolitan Milwaukee to argue that Walker—Wisconsin’s polarizing governor, the former top executive in Milwaukee County, and a presumed presidential hopeful for 2016—is compromised as a candidate for the White House. “He has succeeded in the sort of environment least conducive to producing a candidate capable of winning a national majority,” MacGillis writes.
But as a Washington Post blogger noted, MacGillis’ article isn’t really about Walker—it’s about the deep divisions between Milwaukee and its suburbs, one of the sharpest examples of the red/blue divide anywhere in America. As we’ve already discussed here, that’s a story recently told in detail in “Dividing Lines,” an outstanding four-part series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“Dividing Lines” is credited and linked several times in the TNR piece, which also borrows with permission one of the Journal Sentinel’s striking maps. But the series’ role as an inspiration for the article may be even deeper than that. MacGillis had got wind that the series was in the works, and decided to make Milwaukee’s divides the focus of the Walker profile TNR’s editors wanted in part because he knew such an authoritative treatment was coming.
The series’ first installment actually came out while he was in Milwaukee reporting, he recalled, “so I was able to pick up a hard copy of it, which I brought back to… the office in Washington, where I was constantly waving it around to show people just how stunning the divides in the city are—‘this is what I’m writing about.’”
“I wonder if I would’ve even done the piece if I had not had that foundation,” he said.
Which is not to say that TNR, a liberal magazine, and the Journal Sentinel offered similar treatment of the subject matter. Beyond the stylistic differences between magazine and newspaper writing, MacGillis essentially offers a harsh critique of white Milwaukee’s political culture, and especially talk radio’s role in it. The piece has drawn its own harsh criticisms from conservative media figures, many of them linked and replied to by MacGillis here. (Non-conservative journalists in Milwaukee have been much kinder, though not without a few complaints.)
Journal Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert, who wrote the “Dividing Lines” series, told CJR he “doesn’t have an opinion one way or another” about MacGillis’ argument about Walker. But the TNR piece “fairly represents the structure of the Wisconsin electorate,” he said. In general, it’s healthy for journalism put out by the paper to be read and responded to in different ways while hopefully “elevating the level of reporting out there, whatever analysis people want to add to it,” he said. (As to the role and significance of talk radio in Milwaukee’s divide—which is a relatively minor theme in “Dividing Lines” but close to the core of MacGillis’ article—“it’s a judgment call how much emphasis to give it,” Gilbert said.)
And while the Journal Sentinel, like most papers, is sensitive about how its work is repurposed, especially if it is not fairly credited, it had no complaints with MacGillis’ use. “Having Craig’s work used as a jumping-off point in a national story reinforces and acknowledges his expertise,” said Thomas Koetting, the paper’s deputy managing editor. “It elevates the conversation and builds our brand.” Not that “Dividing Lines” had gone unnoticed outside of Milwaukee before the TNR piece: About 35 percent of its impressive readership came from outside Wisconsin, according to the paper’s analytics.
A former metro reporter himself, MacGillis now often “parachutes” into communities to report on political stories for TNR. He’s not shy about reaching out to local reporters, who might help point him to sources, give him stuff to read, or warn him away from obvious mistakes and faulty premises. While some local journalists are cautious about cooperating, he said, most are inclined to talk, because “your biggest desire as a local metro reporter is to make sure people who come in from outside get things right.”
Because of the value of that local expertise, MacGillis said, national journalists in DC and New York “need to care a lot about the deterioration of local coverage.” While the job market for political journalists along the Acela corridor is strong, he worries that “there are stories we’re simply not going to know about, or to parachute into, because the flare won’t be sent up in the first place.”
And as a DC-based writer himself, MacGillis makes no apologies for the way he covers politics around the country. His trip to Milwaukee, when he picked up the print edition of “Dividing Lines,” coincided with the glad-handing White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he noted. “There’s something even worse than parachuting journalists,” MacGillis said. “It’s journalists that don’t even get on the damn plane.”