Lessons from local reporter on Trump’s Carrier deal: Access isn’t everything

When investigative reporter Rafael Sánchez was barred from covering President-elect Donald Trump’s visit to the Carrier manufacturing plant in Indianapolis earlier this month, the local TV reporter hung around outside the plant waiting to talk to workers coming in for the next shift.

Sánchez had been covering Carrier and its possible move to Mexico for much of the year for the local ABC affiliate. He knew—and was able to confirm using a letter the company gave to workers that night—that Trump was wrong when he boasted during the press conference that the deal he had reached with Carrier to keep the company in Indiana would save more than 1,100 jobs from being offshored to Mexico. In fact, about 600 Indianapolis workers will still lose their jobs when the Carrier’s fan coil operations move across the border next year. Sánchez, a reporter and anchor for RTV6 in Indianapolis and the station’s highest-profile journalist, produced a five-part documentary series earlier this year on the company’s decision to move the plant to Mexico. He shared the company letter on Twitter, where it was retweeted more than 5,000 times.

“Outside the building I was able to get quicker reaction and analysis,” Sánchez tells CJR. “I could do real reporting in real time. Thanks to them barring me from the building, I was able to look at those numbers. I knew that 1,100 number was not true.”

Sánchez’s ability to break news despite being excluded from the official Carrier announcement is an object lesson in the kind of grit and shoe leather reporting that will be needed now more than ever. (Trump has not held a press conference in 146 days, opting instead to bypass the media, and sometimes the facts, by sounding off on Twitter). Sánchez was able to break the news because he was deeply sourced on a local story that he and RTV6 had pursued even before Trump and Democratic contender Bernie Sanders made Carrier a campaign issue about American corporations offshoring jobs. The Indianapolis Star also was out in front of the national media on the story, raising questions about what the deal actually did for the state.

Their coverage reinforces the importance of local journalism in reporting stories that the president-elect puts on the national agenda. Even though his vice presidential pick is the outgoing governor of Indiana who actually negotiated the deal, the president-elect still got it wrong, and got it wrong with Mike Pence by his side. That doesn’t mean it will be easy for reporters like Sánchez, who must act as local watchdogs in a red state like Indiana, where voters overwhelmingly favored Trump.

Sanders, a Vermont senator, has lambasted the deal that Pence helped negotiate to give $7 million in tax breaks to Carrier in exchange for keeping about 800 jobs in the state. The company’s parent, United Technologies, or UTECH, as it’s known locally, is still planning to close another Indiana plant in Huntington outside of Fort Wayne, putting 700 workers there out of work.

But to break a story today, especially when it involves facts that contradict the president-elect and his media machine, means to be accused of faking the news, of being part of a liberal media conspiracy. If you have a name like Rafael Sánchez, it means being told on Twitter that you’re lucky that you haven’t been deported yet, even though Sánchez is a native New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx. It’s ugly out there for a local reporter just trying to get to the bottom of a story.

“Whoever is president, I don’t really care,” Sánchez says. “It is what it is. But we need to have a conversation about candor.”

Trump’s supporters attacked Sánchez for not being happy about the jobs that were saved, even though that number was much lower than Trump had claimed, says Sánchez, who has been at RTV6 for almost two decades. “I’m not happy, and I’m not unhappy,” Sánchez says. “I’m not angry. We are being agnostic. The numbers are not what they said they were.”

Trump himself went after the president of the United Steelworkers Local 1999 when the union leader told The Washington Post a few days after Sánchez’s initial reporting that the president-elect had lied about how many jobs were being saved. As the attack went viral, Sánchez reported on Twitter that someone had created a fake Twitter account using the union leader’s name. It had more than 7,000 followers before Twitter suspended it.

Terri Cope-Walton, news director for RTV6, said the station made an unprecedented investment in covering the Carrier story earlier this year, when a video showing workers reacting to news that the Indianapolis plant would be closing went viral. The station pulled Sánchez off other stories to focus exclusively on Carrier and sent him to Monterrey, Mexico, to explore the jobs that would be created. It even hired a security team to protect the news crew from drug traffickers while it was there.

“I think when we started to cover the story and pull back the layers, we saw that there was a lot more there,” she says. “We wanted to go beyond the news conferences and what state officials tell you.”

The station aired a half-hour special in March during the regular 7 p.m. news broadcast. It streamed the special through Facebook Live, becoming one of the first TV news stations to take advantage of the technology when the social media company started to allow branded pages to use that feature. The special received an additional 10,000 views through Facebook, with 44 shares.

“By running the special through Facebook Live, Rafael was able to sit there in real time and respond to people,” Cope-Walton says. “That’s reach we never would have gotten through our signal locally.”

In addition to the broadcast specials, the station also created the documentary series for YouTube using a longer storytelling format.

“This is the story that keeps on going,” Cope-Walton says. “First it became a national story. Then we just followed the promises, the commitment, and what it looks like for the worker. As journalists, our job is to break it apart. We don’t have a dog in the fight either way.”

Sánchez plans to stay on the story, focusing in particular on how the tax incentive for Carrier helps the taxpayer. “The next story will be what exactly that will mean,” he says. “How will that money be dispersed, and what will it buy?”

Brian Howey, a political columnist and publisher of Howey Politics Indiana, credits Sánchez with helping to get to the bottom of the Carrier deal. He says it will be fascinating to see how the Carrier story resonates with Trump’s supporters in Indiana, particularly in deeply red counties like Huntington, where the United Technologies plant is still slated to close.

“He won communities like Huntington County, and now the danger for him is that it looks like he’s picking winners and losers and doing this piecemeal,” Howey says.

Daniel Herda, editor of the Huntington Herald-Press, a community newspaper that publishes five days a week, also followed Sánchez’s reporting and is now trying to walk the line between giving readers what they want and reporting the facts. The two are not always synonymous these days.

“Some of them, maybe not all of them, they believe in what Trump or Pence is doing,” Herda says. “I think they just want to be heard, too.”

On some local stories, Herda is the voice of the paper, taking a position and writing an editorial. On others, he charges the paper’s two full-time reporters with going into the community to listen to what residents have to say.

Since Trump came to Indianapolis on Dec. 1 to announce the deal, Herda has decided not to take an editorial position. Instead, the paper reported a story from the workers’ perspective, including their anxiety about the job losses.

“I want to let the community tell the story,” he says. “They feel like they aren’t being heard at all. It’s going to be tough for them, to watch this deal with Carrier occur, and they don’t get their jobs back.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.