In Trump territory, local press tries to distance itself from national media

Photo by Gage Skidmore

About a month before the election, a radio station in Fairfield, Illinois, stopped taking calls to its popular morning talk show. It was the first time in 25 years that news director Len Wells remembers ever having to shut off the phones.

“It was awful,” Wells says of the comments about the presidential race. “We had people calling and saying incredibly hateful and ugly things. We just couldn’t have a civil conversation.”

WFIW is broadcast from Wayne County in Southern Illinois, where voters overwhelmingly voted for President-elect Donald Trump. In fact, Trump had the largest margin of support in Wayne out of any county in Illinois, with 83 percent of the vote. (Hillary Clinton won the state because of the large Democratic base in more populous and diverse Chicago and its ring suburbs).

This may be Trump territory, but that doesn’t mean the local press in Wayne County–or other places like it in Middle America–has escaped the profound challenge confronting journalism: to tell the truth when truthfulness is often determined by perspective. To be a local journalist after the 2016 election means reminding readers and viewers that the local press is not the national media but they nonetheless share the same responsibility to report the news.

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It is an odd paradox in a small community: people shop with their local TV reporters and send their kids to school with the children of the editors of their hometown newspaper. They know their local journalists not simply as a byline but as the reporter who sits in the fourth row from the front on the right side of the church every Sunday. They don’t always see them as “the media.” The media are CNN and The New York Times and the Huffington Post. The media that deserves to be put in pens, like cattle, as Tom Matthews, editor of the Wayne County Press wrote in a recent column.

Gary Sawyer, who was an editor at the Decatur Herald & Review in Central Illinois for 15 years, says the challenge for local media is that no matter how hard journalists try to be fair and impartial and do the right thing for the community there is “always that media thing right behind you even if the story was totally legitimate.”

“Everybody would feed into that without considering if this a good piece of journalism or not,” he says.

Sawyer, who left the Decatur paper in August and now teaches journalism at Iowa State University, says journalists need to do a better job of explaining the process of reporting to combat criticism of legitimate news stories. “I always told people that if you view us over a long period of time, we’re very fair and objective,” he says. “In Decatur, it was always frustrating for us because editorially we were probably middle of the road, leaning a little bit conservative. But people would still criticize our news coverage. I would tell people that if you really think that we are one side of this thing in Decatur, Illinois, why would we have this opinion page at the other end or in the middle? Why wouldn’t we just go one way?”

In the coming months, local journalists, like their national counterparts, are sure to face more criticism as Trump prepares to take office. There are two things at play: one is what role journalists will have under a president who has been outwardly hostile of the watchdogs of government, and the other is to what extent people will be willing to listen if the journalism doesn’t confirm previously held beliefs. In other words, how will any journalist deliver credible news under a model in which people doesn’t necessarily want information but rather something else?

 

I heard someone say it’s our job to hold up the mirror and tell the stories of our communities, and we have failed in that. So how do we step back reassess and figure out how we can start to really tell the stories of our communities?

 

“Every shop is going through their own analysis at a local and national level,” says Scott Cameron, a manager at public radio WILL on the University of Illinois campus in Central Illinois, which is, as he describes, “in the middle of a pair of blue cities that is surrounded by deep red.”

“We’re all reading the stories about the bubbles, the echo chambers, the non-facts presented as facts,” he says. “I heard someone say it’s our job to hold up the mirror and tell the stories of our communities, and we have failed in that. So how do we step back reassess and figure out how we can start to really tell the stories of our communities?”

In many ways, local reporters are well ahead of the national press in doing that. The hand-wringing taking place in the national media over how journalism failed to understand what was happening doesn’t quite fit in this part of the country. Local journalists were well aware of Trump’s deep appeal in their communities and had been reporting it for months leading up to Trump’s victory.

“You see all this major media saying now that they have to talk to Trump voters,” says Brandon Pope, a reporter for the ABC-affiliate in South Bend, Indiana. “But we already knew locally. We’ve been talking to them. We understand. We cover these communities.”

The day after the election, the NBC-affiliate in Quincy, Illinois, in the western part of the state, reported from a Dunkin’ Donuts about the jubilation voters were feeling over Trump’s victory. That should not have been a surprise, says Chad Mahoney, the news director for WGEM.

“In our area we noticed early on in the campaign season there were no Clinton signs,” he says. “We had farmers erecting 25-foot signs of plywood for Trump. We were just getting the sense that Trump was getting through to the people in our county who felt like they were getting disrespected.”

In the final weeks of the campaign, the station worked hard to distinguish its reporting from that of its national broadcast partner in New York. Mahoney says some of the national reporting, particularly the banter between the reporter and anchor at the end of a story, called a “tag-out” in broadcast journalism, seemed biased. “We had some issues with the NBC News pieces,” he says. “Some of the tag-outs on them were not exactly fact-based, and our viewers were calling us out on it. We were working hard in the campaign season to differentiate us with the national media.”

Max Jones, editor of the Tribune-Star in Terre Haute, Indiana, says he is trying to assess the mood of his community and have “a little bit of cooling off.”

Terre Haute is the seat of Vigo County and a national bellwether county for presidential elections. Since 1888, when the county was formed, it has only twice missed voting for the eventual president. In 2012, President Obama won Vigo County by a narrow margin, even though he was beaten badly statewide. Trump handily won Vigo County this year by several thousand votes.

Even though Indiana is “the reddest of red states,” Jones notes, the community of Terre Haute has tensions, primarily between the more affluent workers in the healthcare community and the blue-collar manufacturing base.

“Without even thinking about it a lot, it’s just our approach to try to be inclusive to reflect all sides and to make sure everybody has their say and to do it in a respectful way,” he says. That means for now that the newspaper of about 18,000 circulation will “not do anything in particular to stir things up.”

Peoria, Illinois, has a similar social and economic divide. The global manufacturing giant Caterpillar is headquartered there, with about 3,000 employees.

“You name the demographic, and it’s here,” says Dennis Anderson, executive editor of the Peoria Journal Star, which endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Anderson says the paper has been preparing for a Clinton win, getting ready with a “Madam President” headline for the front page. As it got later in the night and the returns started to suggest Trump would actually beat the former secretary of state, Anderson says the paper redid its front page. When it landed on people’s doorsteps the next morning, it had a picture of Trump and the headline, “Trump’s Triumph”

Immediately after Trump won, Caterpillar’s stock price jumped to its highest of the year, rising 8 percent and then another 2 percent in the days after the election, the Journal Star reported. The paper also published an interview with Caterpillar’s director of investor relations that was optimistic about what the president-elect could do for the company.

 

The real question now is how to move past the rhetoric, to reflect Trump’s appeal without normalizing the hate and ugliness that came to define it.

 

But the city is also racially divided, with the majority of its poorer African-American residents living on the south side. Anderson says that community in particular is fearful. “People are worried about what’s going to happen to them,” he says. “There are people who are very scared.”

The paper covered a small Trump protest downtown the week after the election and will continue to try to balance its coverage, Anderson says. “We just need to watch, pay attention to what people are saying and how the news nationally is going to impact Peoria.”

For many reporters and editors, the real question now is how to move past the rhetoric, to reflect Trump’s appeal without normalizing the hate and ugliness that came to define it.

“People drop the ‘N’ word around here,” says Wells, the Fairfield radio station news director who also writes a weekly column for the Evansville Courier & Press in neighboring Indiana. “We have homes that can’t be sold to a black person. Local politicians have refused to hang Obama’s picture in city hall. We’ve talked about it on the air and how wrong that is, that this is just not the way we are as people.”

Wayne County is a working class community, with a population of about 16,700. It is 98 percent white, according to the US Census. About a quarter of the residents in Wayne County work in the shrinking manufacturing sector and others in agriculture and mining, retail, and healthcare. It’s a community that is hurting economically. “We’re classic fly-over country,” says Matthews, the editor of the Wayne County Press. “We’re just Middle Americans trying to eke out a living.”

It would be easy to dismiss Wayne County now that Trump won the election. Residents here are happy and hopeful. And why wouldn’t they be? Trump has promised to make their forgotten America great again, to bring back jobs, to rid the country of strangers who don’t look like or worship like most of the people who live in Wayne County. As Chicago Reporter editor Susan Smith Richardson noted recently at panel discussion in Chicago, jobs, trade and immigration have one thing in common across the electorate: fear of foreigners. “We have a number of, I’d assume, illegal immigrants living here,” Matthew says of Wayne County. “They are largely peaceful.”

The issue of race and the president-elect’s specific targeting of certain Americans (women, Mexicans and Muslims, in particular) is not an easy one to have in Middle America. It requires an agreement on what racism is and what white privilege is. How can a local news outlet even begin to sort through that?

Pope, the reporter at the ABC 57 station in South Bend, says when he covered a Trump rally in Indiana earlier this year he saw Confederate flags, signs telling people to go back to Mexico and references to Adolf Hitler. They were things he had “never seen before with my own eyes, things that made me drop my jaw.”

He decided the best way to convey what he was seeing was to be upfront with viewers that it was abnormal. “I didn’t editorialize,” he says. “What I didn’t do was treat this as a normal thing, just something we did. I made sure to stress that we haven’t seen South Bend like this. We saw a city divided.”

Pope says the real challenge is trying not to normalize the behavior but also to be fair. “The fair thing to do if there is hateful rhetoric, which is objectionably wrong, is to hear out the people who are the victims of the hateful rhetoric but also talk to the people saying this rhetoric,” he says. “It’s hard. There is a lot of hostility toward the media. You already are met with opposition.”

Deanna Fry, a producer at Fox 59 in Indianapolis, says she’s already reconciled that no one is going to be happy about media coverage.

“We’re up against op-ed journalists, left or right-leaning journalists,” she says. “We’re up against fake news sites and blogs that have their own agendas. We’re up against all of that. People want to talk to people who think like them, and we’re journalists and we don’t think like anyone. We just report as it happens and do our best to cover the facts as we find them.”

As for the Fairfield radio station in Illinois, Wells says he isn’t sure when they will start taking calls to the morning show again.

“I’m wishing for the best,” he says. “I’m hoping for the best. But at some point we are going to have to restart our conversation on the air. We’re going to have to talk about it.”

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