IOWA — You heard it last week from an Iowa transplant: Iowans eat meatloaf, casserole and Jell-O molds. This was one of several sweeping generalizations made by Stephen G. Bloom last week in his much-discussed Atlantic online article, sub-titled “thoughts from a university professor on the Iowa hamlets that will shape the contours of the GOP contest.”
So, what of the media diet of GOP contest-shaping Iowans?
Conservative talk radio, Fox News, and, to a lesser extent, the Internet are key information sources for the likely GOP caucus-goers I interviewed at two recent political events here in Iowa. My snapshot jives with a New York Times/CBS poll of likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers earlier this month which found that 37 percent of respondents get most of their TV coverage of politics from Fox News, compared to 27 percent for all the major news networks combined. Another 32 percent frequently listen to political call-in shows.
Donna Thompson of Paton was among the thousand-plus crowd in Des Moines last week at the premiere of The Gift of Life, an anti-abortion film produced by the conservative group Citizens United and narrated by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. (The event attracted four presidential candidates—Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum). Thompson gets most of her political news and information from conservative radio talk show hosts like Jan Mickelson, Simon Conway, and Rush Limbaugh on WHO Radio in Des Moines. She doesn’t subscribe to a newspaper, watch TV newscasts, or read political coverage online, but feels well-informed about the presidential candidates.
“I enjoy hearing about people’s views on each of the candidates,” Thompson said of the radio programs. “It kind of helps me to know what direction I want to go. But it seems like when I get one I want, then they’re out of there or I’m told I shouldn’t vote for them.”
Those shifting messages may help explain why, when we spoke, Thompson was still unsure whom she would support at the caucuses. She liked businessman Herman Cain and is now interested in Perry. A self-described “proud Christian,” she also likes Bachmann, but doesn’t think the Minnesota congresswoman can beat President Obama.
And while Thompson gets most of her political news from right-leaning sources, she said she wishes there were a TV station that presented “fair” coverage of both political parties—which, as she explained it, seemed to mean less aggressive, or less hostile, coverage. “It’s too bad there isn’t a station that’s fair with both of them,” she said. “I just wish there was somebody that just wasn’t biased against somebody, just let everybody talk and give their opinion.”
Jim Welsher of Des Moines, also in the audience for the premiere, listed talk radio shows and Fox News as his major sources of political information. Welsher referred to CNN as “the Clinton News Network,” and said he doesn’t read the Des Moines Register. “Oh yeah,” Welsher said when asked if he thinks the state’s largest paper is biased.
His favorite show hosts, Welsher said, include Huckabee, Mickelson, Conway, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham. But perhaps the biggest influence on his thinking this election cycle have been the numerous GOP presidential debates—a hallmark of what the Washington Post and Politico have referred to as this campaign’s “national” character—which Welsher compared to Super Bowl Sunday at his house. He said he’s supporting Gingrich in large part because of Gingrich’s strong debate performances.
“I like Newt because he’s not afraid to say how it is or [refuses to] sugarcoat the issues with euphemisms. He seems to be a tried and true leader,” Welsher said, adding that he was initially a Perry supporter. “He’s got his baggage but I think he’s strong enough to overcome it. He seems like the smartest man in the race. He’s won each debate that I’ve watched.”
The skepticism about mainstream sources was shared by others in the audience. Barbara Welch of Polk City, who plans to support either Santorum or Ron Paul, agreed that outlets like CNN and the Register are “biased.”
But there were also inklings that Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich may have been on to something when she suggested that GOP caucus-goers do pay attention to the “mainstream media,” but that “they aren’t necessarily consumers that believe every word they read.”
Welch, for example, said that she “love[s]” WHO Radio. And Bill Yewell of Ogden, who was choosing between Santorum, Paul, and Perry, said he relies on WHO radio and local network TV newscasts. Yewell even gets the Sunday edition of the Register, though he says he doesn’t put much stock in mainstream news outlets. “I think they manufacture the news the way they want it to come out,” he said.
While many of the voters at the The Gift of Life screening were considering backing Paul, media usage at an event dedicated to Paul earlier in the month at Iowa State University in Ames skewed more toward the Internet and social media—an anecdotal finding consistent with research showing that the septuagenarian libertarian is the top candidate on Twitter.
Andrew Burkland of Centerville said he gets news on the candidates mostly from links friends post on Facebook, while sometimes watching Fox News and presidential debates.
Eric Cooper, the faculty advisor for Students for Ron Paul at ISU, said he gets most of his information from the social news site Reddit and conservative radio talk shows—though he also admitted to subscribing to the Register.
“I don’t watch TV,” he said. “TV news is all propaganda. I go on the Internet for information.”