A Nebraskan and a New Yorker cross swords over ‘coastal bias’ in reporting

A block of N. Main Street in Fremont, Nebraska, circa 2016. Photo via David Wilson/Flickr.

ON THE MORNING OF DECEMBER 6, 2017, writer Ted Genoways was working at his home office in Lincoln, Nebraska, awaiting the midday publication of his latest feature for The New Republic.

The article looked at a controversial plan to build a Costco chicken processing plant in nearby Fremont, Nebraska. Supporters said the factory would bring 1,100 new jobs to town and create contracts for 122 farmers to raise chickens, generating a quarter-billion dollars for the local economy. Protesters, including a strange alliance of Islamophobes and environmentalists, worried the factory would bring immigrants and refugees to town, foul the air with the smell of chicken manure, and pollute the Lower Platte River with farm runoff.

As he waited, Genoways got a Facebook message from a source asking if he’d seen the story about Fremont published that morning on Slate.

ICYMI: An ongoing feud between two media goliaths

Henry Grabar, a staff writer based in New York City, had also visited Fremont, looking at the Costco controversy as a microcosm of demographic shifts in rural America. In 2010, Fremont had made national news for passing a housing ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting homes to undocumented immigrants. The law was in response to an upswell in Latino residents, many of them undocumented, lured to town by jobs at the Hormel meatpacking plant. During a four-day visit, Grabar found that the law was mostly given lip service and that Fremont was home to a thriving Latino population. Opening the Costco plant might be an economic engine for Fremont to embrace its cultural diversity.

The two stories did not factually conflict, but Genoways took issue with Grabar’s report, tweeting that it was a “case study in the perils of parachute journalism.” He added: “Not that New Yorkers can’t write about Nebraska, but the Slate story lacks context and it’s not hard to see why.”

Grabar, apparently caught doubly off guard by the timing of their stories and Genoways’s Twitter-fast criticism, replied

 

IN HINDSIGHT, A CLASH between two writers like Genoways and Grabar was inevitable.  The election of Donald Trump set off a land rush of reporters searching for stories in the American heartland. The Washington Post, NPR,  Politico, and others launched initiatives this year to improve their local news coverage.

But the collision course was set long before that. From 1990 to 2017, the journalism industry’s workforce dropped from 455,000 to 173,900 reporters, with most losses in states not touching a US coastline. News organizations consolidated their reporting staffs inside “media bubbles,” such as New York City, Washington DC, and San Francisco.

If Genoways was too close, and Grabar too distant, then who should report on Fremont?

Kirk Johnson, Seattle bureau chief for for The New York Times, watched that process happen from his then-post as Denver bureau chief.

“When I arrived in 2004, all the major newspapers still had national bureaus,” Johnson says. “The LA Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, even The Philadelphia Inquirer all had correspondents in Denver. During the economic crash of 2008, those bureaus blinked out. I haven’t run into a national correspondent from another newspaper in a long time.”

During the 2008 Democratic National Convention, held in Denver, he says, bureau-less newspapers sent correspondents from the coast.

“For many of them, they picked up other Colorado stories during their week in Denver,” Johnson says. “The convention coverage was fine, but those other stories were full of superficial, if not cliched observations of place that weren’t exactly wrong, but were the stuff of not really knowing where you’d arrived in depth. You could sense their approach was quick and fast, what you’d expect from someone half-a-day off from being at the convention.”

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The rise of digital publishing, such as Slate, was supposed to herald a new age in journalism where place would be of little importance. Reporters could work from anywhere in the country, so long as there was a good internet connection. Digital newspapers and magazines did create a bump in the industry, from 77,900 jobs in 2007 to 206,700 in 2017, but those reporters were stationed in the big cities.

“Their reporters, an admirable lot,” wrote Jack Shafer for Politico, “can parachute into Appalachia or the rural Midwest on a monthly basis and still not shake their provincial sensibilities: Reporters tote their bubbles with them.”

It was a matter of time before a local reporter would take a swing to pop that bubble.

 

THE DAY AFTER THE FREMONT stories published, Genoways wrote a critique of Grabar’s work, again for The New Republic. “Grabar wore down some serious shoe leather in Fremont. And what he got is interesting and factual and sensitive—and mostly misses the point.” One of the main criticisms was that Grabar had stereotyped Fremont as “rural America,” a depiction Genoways saw as a misread of the town’s physical, cultural, and social geography.

“People in Fremont live within an hour’s drive of Nebraska’s two largest cities and virtually all of its major cultural institutions,” he wrote. The residents shop in large malls, attend college football games, and watch a lot of Fox News. “The problem, in other words, isn’t that Fremont is disconnected from the world and is just in need of some diversity; the problem is that it is all too connected—but to false narratives.”

It seemed to Genoways that Grabar had been dizzied by Costco’s corporate spin:

“To make some generic call for ‘change’ plays into the false narrative that they haven’t always been changing and stokes the Middle American paranoia that the coasts are judging and trying to ‘correct’ them—when, in fact, the most recent throes of racist fervor in Fremont is anything but homegrown. … Fremont should not be treated like some uncontacted tribe in the Amazon but rather like an apocalyptic cult whose members are threatening suicide rather than live in a world they now denounce.”

Grabar responded at Slate, arguing that his outsider status had allowed him to see the story through fresh eyes. (Genoways had written about Fremont in his book The Chain.)

“Genoways thinks I got it wrong because, as a New Yorker, I wanted to see Fremont as an urban-style melting pot. The truth is I was drawn to Fremont because of its racist reputation. But when I went, I discovered not only that the Guatemalan food was pretty good, but that not every resident was bigoted. … If my reporting suffered from seeing a place for the first time, it was not for lack of learning about its checkered past. Genoways may have the opposite problem: He has been covering the most outspoken racists in Fremont for so long that he hasn’t asked what’s new.”

If Genoways was too close, and Grabar too distant, then who should report on Fremont?

 

IN THE PRINT ERA, A STORY LIKE FREMONT would’ve been the turf of a correspondent working out of a local bureau office, likely based in either Denver or Kansas City. The virtue of national bureaus, Johnson says, is that they give correspondents time to explore and learn about their region before writing word one.

“If you arrive without an understanding about the dynamics of a place or situation, that is a sort of bias, whether you call it coastal or just simply ignorance,” Johnson says. “What is in your head is going to filter in and color the story.”

That’s no small task for Johnson, whose beat covers a four-state region (Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) nearly equal in size to continental Europe. Based in Seattle, one of six major “media bubbles,” Johnson must check his own bias every time he drives over the Cascade Mountains, a geographic feature that divides the Pacific Northwest politically, culturally, and economically. More, understanding that geography gives important context, whether as background or explicitly part of the story, as in the case of Johnson’s recent article about the privatization of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River.

Digital journalism has led newsrooms to recognize their readership was larger than a specific geographic locality. Journalists need keep in mind a reader could be in Manhattan, New York, or Manhattan, Indiana.

Although, Johnson says, that doesn’t mean a reporter based in New York is unduly hampered reporting away from the Eastern seaboard. One example is Farah Stockman’s profile of a female steelworker in Indianapolis, reported over the course of eight months (and eight trips to Indiana) for The New York Times.

“If you really read Farah’s story, you see she got to know the place and the depth of the story in a way she couldn’t without spending a lot of time,” Johnson says. “You need time to learn the economic, cultural, and climatic motors of a geographic area, and to know it deeply before you arrive.”

Something else telling about the Stockman story is the extent to which it was produced with local readers in mind. Stockman wrote a Times Insider article about finding her very own “Rosie the Riveter,” was the subject of a The Daily podcast, and hosted a town-hall style forum in Indianapolis as part of The Times in Person series.

That level of audience engagement shows how digital journalism has led newsrooms to recognize their readership was larger than a specific geographic locality. In the digital era, journalists need keep in mind a reader could be in Manhattan, New York, or Manhattan, Indiana.

 

IF THE LESSON FOR JOURNALISTS in 2016 was to take seriously the work of covering local news in the American heartland, the takeaway from 2017 is to source more of that reporting locally.

Nona Willis Aronowitz, editor of Splinter, took to America’s highways in search of local reporters for a “virtual bureau” called Think Local.

“This network will be our longterm eyes and ears in forgotten pockets of the country and will ensure that we coastal journalists don’t miss the zeitgeist hiding in plain sight,” Willis Aronowitz wrote in June 2017. Her quest has since taken her to Texas, the Rust Belt, the Deep South, and now Florida.

Also last summer, The Guardian launched On the Ground, a local reporting initiative produced in partnership with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Announcing the project, co-editors Jessica Reed and Alissa Quart wrote that it would “give a platform to writers who already know their communities and can identify what’s most crucial about them long before reporters who live thousands of miles away.”

The Guardian has since brought the work of a dozen local journalists to international prominence. Through co-publishing agreements, the series has benefited several local news outlets. A story about Alabama’s “poll tax” appeared on AL.com (and caused the Secretary of State to reverse his stance on the issue), and a report on farmer suicides also published in the Des Moines Register.

“It would be stupid to not look at the immense pool of talent on our doorstep: local journalists with armfuls of local stories,” says Reed.

A lot of people think that if a state doesn’t touch the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, it’s part of the Midwest. They have a paucity of information or knowledge about these places. That means the national news often gets these places wrong.

Meanwhile, several writers have taken this moment as an opportunity to move into smaller communities and closer to home. Anne Helen Petersen, a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News, convinced her editor on the merits of creating a position for her as a Western correspondent based in Missoula, Montana—a four-hour drive from her hometown of Lewiston, Idaho. The idea came to her while reporting on Montana’s special election in May 2017.

“I spent a week driving around the state,” Petersen says. “I thought, ‘Why am I so happy right now?’ I realized it was because I knew how to talk to people. It didn’t make me feel nervous the way reporting did in New York.

During her time in New York, Petersen noticed how few of her colleagues understood the American interior.

“A lot of people think that if a state doesn’t touch the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, it’s part of the Midwest,” Petersen says. “They have a paucity of information or knowledge about these places. That means the national news often gets these places wrong. When they report about a place, it’s pretty facile, pretty flat in terms of nuance. It often times reinforces a stereotype people have about a place.”

Petersen has leveraged her street cred as a daughter of the Rocky Mountains to gain insider access to stories largely overlooked by the national media. She reported on the “whitetopia” Republican enclaves of northern Idaho, women from polygamous sects in Utah, and a growing insurgency led by the Bundy family, among others. (Petersen also has a feature story in the next print issue of CJR, out next week.)

“People around here think BuzzFeed is ‘fake’ news,” she says, “but I was able to earn their confidence because they understood I had a stake in getting their stories correct. An outsider could come in and misrepresent what they’re doing and take their quotes out of context to make a better story. What ramifications would there be? As a regional reporter, I need to maintain trust with that community.”

The week after his point-counterpoint with Grabar, Genoways saw another of his stories mirrored. This time, New York magazine published a story about a bomb plot against Somali refugees in Garden City, Kansas, which Genoways had written about that summer for The New Republic. This time, though, Genoways thought staff writer Jessica Pressler had done an admirable job, extending the timeline of the story’s coverage.

“She arrived at a time when the community was putting itself back together,” he says. “Her story has a pictures of Somali guys standing in front of the African Shop in Garden City. When I was there, nobody was hanging out in public spaces. They were all so afraid.”

His takeaway: “Maybe we get it right by having a bunch of people who do end up repeating certain stories and telling them from different perspectives. That way we make sure somebody gets the story right.”

There is one other lesson to learn from the Grabar-Genoways row: ask sources if they’ve spoken to anyone else in the press.

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Ryan Bell is a writer and photographer based in Seattle. In 2015-2016, he was a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow in Russia and Kazakhstan. His work has appeared in National Geographic, Bloomberg, Outside, and many other publications. Follow him on Instagram @ryantbell.