Was it Obama’s policies—or the pie?

Romney ad blames president for Virginia BBQ chain’s closure; locals point to the food, competition

VIRGINIA — As part of his closing pitch to voters here in Virginia, Mitt Romney went hog wild.

It was pork barrel politics of a different sort as the Romney campaign late last week crafted an online ad that lays the September closing of a Richmond barbecue chain, Bill’s Barbecue, at the feet of President Obama. Romney also visited with chain owner—and Republican backer—Rhoda Elliott at one of the former Bill’s locations, and then used the closing as a talking point at another campaign stop in the state. Here’s the ad:

The spot drew some national attention, but it was most interesting—and offered some welcome late-campaign fun—to watch the local press coverage. That’s where you could learn that the ad got some pushback from some unlikely sources: former customers of Bill’s Barbecue and Richmond residents in general.

The Richmond Times Dispatch jumped on the local response to the story, amplifying reader feedback. Political reporter Wesley Hester noted in a Friday story that the paper’s website and Facebook page attracted more than 120 comments on the ad, “the vast majority” which “scoffed at the idea that the president was to blame for the failure of the business.” Separate Times-Dispatch posts gathered reader comments and tweets about the ad.

Much of the feedback was obviously partisan, with a few Romney backers sprinkled among Obama supporters, but it was an entertaining mix. A sampling from the Times-Dispatch’s collection:

I’m pretty sure Buzz & Ned’s delicious BBQ is the reason Bill’s closed, not the President. Republicans don’t like free markets, apparently.. - @msager

Obama created Sandy, stole Donald Trump’s hair, and now we’re told he’s the reason Bill’s Barbecue closed…oh —huh? Lol - @simplyTricie

Bill’s Barbecue was terrible. Romney, aka Mr. Private Sector, must not realize that bad food is bad business. http://t.co/Aq54rG0K - @reillymoore

Bill’s BBQ in Richmond,VA closed it’s doors bc of Pres Obama & his policies. I cried watching this. youtu.be/NlFHrLeeJIU - @PoliticsBlonde

The day they started serving crappy chocolate pie was the day they died. - @flyingmeerkat

Other than the curated material, the Times-Dispatch’s main story runs through the talking points Romney picked up from Elliott, the chain’s owner—taxes, regulation, health care costs, the faltering economy. This material goes unchallenged for most of the piece, except for some Obama campaign boilerplate, until this bit at the end:

The owner of Buz and Ned’s Real Barbecue, which competed with Bill’s outlets on both sides of its Boulevard location, said in an interview Thursday that his restaurant thrived at the height of the recession because of assistance from the federal government. Buz Grossberg said his firm opened a second location in Henrico County with a $1.3 million loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The new branch would “not be possible without the contribution of our federal government,” said Grossberg, who has helped organize fundraising events for U.S. Senate candidate Timothy M. Kaine over the Democrat’s 11-year career in statewide politics.

“It was an even better deal than normal,” Grossberg said of the loan.

Grossberg is hardly objective, but it was an interesting bit of counter-narrative about Obama’s record on small business.

The article could have been stronger, though, by directly scrutinizing those messages—especially the ones that hang on specific policies—rather than balancing them. For example, was Bill’s rising health care tab actually attributable to Obamacare? You wouldn’t know it from most political rhetoric, but the reform law exempts many small businesses from the employer mandate and subsidizes others. (CJR’s Trudy Lieberman has written about how small-business groups use media to spread an anti-Obamacare message.)

Meanwhile, Richmond television station WTVR wasn’t about to be left out of his particular pork barrel. The station’s Mark Holmberg opined on his own experiences at the eatery—and his thoughts about Romney’s ad—while also drawing on some colorful local reaction. Here’s his lede (click here for the video):

You have to be a blind supporter of President Obama’s to say the economy hasn’t been tough for the past four years.

But you also have to be a blind critic of the president to blame him for the closing of Bill’s Barbecue.

In my view, this longtime Richmond institution has no one to blame but itself.

A new, sad and heartfelt Romney/Ryan campaign ad getting national attention shows Bill’s owner Rhoda Elliott tearfully blaming the economy, and President Obama’s handling of it, for the death of this family-owned institution.

“That’s a bunch of frackanackle bull!” said Agnes Hawkins, a lifelong Richmond resident who estimates she has eaten at Bill’s more than a thousand times. She says the business has slipped in recent years, with poor service and prices. She blames bad management, not the Oval Office.
It’s succinct, insightful, and fun (hey, it’s not every day that you get to work “frackanackle” into a story). It’s also an illustration of how politics, and news, is still local—and of how media can draw on local knowledge to help us determine if we’re getting a pig in a poke in a campaign’s claims.

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Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.