on the contrary

Missing Middle

That gaping hole in our national news report is called the Midwest.
March 1, 2007

In early January, more than 6,000 journalists from around the world descended on Detroit’s Cobo Center for the annual Detroit auto show. For three days, they attended parties and briefings, interviewed executives and engineers, and participated in the annual ritual of picking their own personal winners and losers from among the fifty or so new car models on display. They wrote about Toyota’s unaccustomed “swagger” and Detroit’s “fresh thinking,” about Ford’s new muscle car and GM’s beautiful interiors, about the “sporty” Nissan Altima Coupe and the “snazzy” Chevy Malibu. “I just get tingles,” one exhibition-goer told the Associated Press about the new, supercharged Dodge Viper. Micheline Maynard, the Detroit bureau chief of The New York Times, said in an interview posted on the paper’s Web site that for reporters covering the auto industry, the Detroit show “is our Oscar night, our World Series, and our political convention all rolled into one.”

Outside the exhibition hall, however, it seemed like anything but Oscar night. The city of Detroit and the surrounding region were staggering from the effects of the severe retrenchment taking place in the U.S. auto industry. In the months before the show, roughly half of Ford’s 75,000 blue-collar workers in North America had accepted offers of buyouts and early retirement, and GM had let go about 35,000 hourly workers, a third of its U.S. force. Unemployment was up, housing prices were down, and stores on Main Streets in surrounding towns were being shuttered. Yet few of the journalists in Detroit seemed to notice. True, many were beat reporters assigned to write about sedans, vans, sports coupes, and light trucks, but still it’s remarkable how few took note of the really big story at hand—the dramatic demise of an industry that for the last century has been the economic mainstay of the upper Midwest. (To her credit, Maynard did file a story about the gloom that Ford’s woes were causing in Dearborn—a rare acknowledgement of reality amid the overall breathlessness.)

“If you tuned into the Today show or Good Morning America, everything looked so rosy in Detroit,” says Victoria Ekstrand, an assistant professor of journalism at Bowling Green State University in northwestern Ohio. “Yet we’re just an hour to the south, and housing prices here have plummeted.” While the networks have reported on the auto industry’s slump from a business standpoint, she says, they have generally ignored the huge “ripple effects” its decline has had in Toledo and Cleveland and into Indiana and all the way to Chicago. At the auto show, Ekstrand says, journalists seemed “to take whatever the auto industry handed out to them hook, line, and sinker. They got so sucked into the p.r. machine.”

Ekstrand has lived in Ohio for the last five years. She moved there after spending nine years in New York, mostly working for the AP, and three years in North Carolina pursuing a Ph.D. Her time in “the land of the potluck dinner,” as she calls Ohio, has changed her perspective. “It’s one thing to fly in and cover a news event and fly out,” she says. “To understand the full context, you have to live in the community. I understand the country so much better now that I live here.” Unfortunately, she says, since all of the nation’s news networks and most of its top newspapers and magazines are based on the East Coast, “there’s no nationally distributed heartland perspective.” If a network were based in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, or St. Louis, she asks, “what would its coverage look like?”

I’ve been thinking about that question since last fall when I visited Bowling Green to give a talk. It was, I’m chagrined to admit, my first visit to Ohio. Like most New York-based journalists, I’ve glimpsed the Midwest primarily through the window of an airplane. And, like many New Yorkers’ visits to Ohio, mine was fleeting—just two days. That was long enough, however, to make me realize how thin and unsatisfying is the national coverage of this region of twelve states and 66 million people—about 22 percent of the nation’s population.

Of all those states, of course, Ohio has emerged as a national bellwether—as the one state a presidential candidate cannot afford to lose. In recognition of that fact, journalists from across the country trooped there in the weeks and months leading up to the 2004 election. Even so, the returns on Election Day left many journalists flummoxed. Ekstrand recalls getting calls and e-mails from her East Coast colleagues asking, “What’s up in Ohio? How could so many people have voted for Bush?” I myself remember how frustrated I felt reading and watching columnists and talking heads as they parsed the data from the exit polls. The confidence with which they opined seemed inversely proportional to the amount of time they’d spent on the ground in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri.

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“You can’t parachute in, go to Main Street, and talk to two or three people,” observes Mitch Weiss, a Bronx native who spent nearly twenty years in the Midwest working for the AP and the Toledo Blade before moving to The Charlotte Observer in 2005. People at national news organizations “think the sun rises and sets in New York” and so, for the most part, “ignore what’s going on in the heartland.”

The coverage of the Midwest is becoming even thinner than in the past because of all the crippling cutbacks in the news business. In bygone years, the nation’s top papers had bureaus latticing the region. Now, most cover the Midwest much as they do the Mideast, out of one major bureau (Chicago here, Jerusalem there) fed by stringers. Meanwhile, top regional papers like the Des Moines Register, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which once prided themselves on quality investigative work, have cut back on their digging, and that has reduced the amount and quality of news flowing up to the national level.

So what are we missing as a result? If a national paper or network were based in the Midwest, what stories would get more attention? Religion, for one. Midwesterners (like southerners) tend to be far more godfearing, churchgoing, and tithe-giving than people on the East or West coasts. They also tend to adhere to more evangelical forms of their faith. To the extent that America has in recent years been undergoing another Great Awakening, as many observers believe, it arose in part in the megachurches and seminaries of Indiana and Illinois, Kansas and Kentucky. As that wave spread across the country, it helped shift the center of the nation’s political gravity to the right. The effect has been especially noticeable in the Republican Party, moving it from the moderate Episcopalianism of George H.W. Bush to the born-again Methodism of George W. Bush. Editors and reporters in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles were late in grasping that and have had to play catch-up. A national news organization based in the Midwest would have been on to this change from the start.

Higher education would be covered differently as well. Editors and reporters at top news organizations often seem fixated on Ivy League schools and how to get into them. Midwesterners (like most Americans) seem less preoccupied. Many attend state schools; many are the first generation in their families to attend college. For them, the anxiety associated with college is focused less on early admission and advanced placement than on the challenge of meeting ever-rising tuition fees. Students avail themselves of such options as “two plus two”—attending community college for two years, then transferring to a four-year college for the remaining two—and “distance education,” in which they take courses online or otherwise seek degrees at a distance from the institution offering them. According to Melissa Spirek, an associate professor of journalism at Bowling Green, distance education now consumes a tenth of that university’s entire budget—to the consternation of many faculty members, who believe it can’t substitute for on-site schooling. Despite its growing importance, the phenomenon has received limited attention in the national news media.

One reason young midwesterners wrestle with their tuition bills, of course, is the downturn in the regional economy. The failure of journalists at the Detroit auto show to venture out of the Cobo Center reflects a broader indifference on the part of national news organizations toward the severe dislocations taking place in the nation’s midsection. Michael Sallah, who worked for thirteen years as a reporter at the Toledo Blade before taking a job as investigations editor at The Miami Herald in 2005, says that “from time to time reporters will swoop in and do an obligatory story on an auto or steel plant that’s closing and the effect this will have on Youngstown or Bryan, Ohio.” But that individual closing, he notes, is actually part of a much larger story—the slow death of American manufacturing. NAFTA and free trade in general have had a devastating effect on blue-collar America, and only by covering that story on a regular basis can the depth of the transformation be appreciated. “So goes the Midwest, so, in many cases, goes the rest of the country,” Sallah told me.

In the 2006 election, the surprising margin of the Democratic victory placed a long-overdue spotlight on the stagnating fortunes of the nation’s middle and working classes. That trend, however, has been under way for years in the Rust Belt, and had a national news organization been based there, it could not have remained hidden for so long.

Since there’s little chance of a national news organization’s suddenly picking up and moving to the Midwest, it’s more useful to think of ways of moving some of the Midwest into those organizations. With all the talk about the need to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the newsroom, it might be worth discussing the importance of more regional (and class) diversity as well. During my visit to Bowling Green, several faculty members told me of the frustration they’d had in trying to place their students in internships at top-tier news organizations. Even an in-state paper like the Toledo Blade, I was told, often seemed to prefer Ivy League grads.

Berkley Hudson, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, told me of a phone conversation he’d recently had with an editor at Smithsonian magazine who was considering taking one of his students for a six-month internship. The student was from a small town in Kansas, and the editor, he said, was worried that she lacked the sophistication to work for a national magazine. Hudson explained that the student had a degree in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon and could talk knowledgeably about Foucault; she was, he said, “as good as anybody who went to Choate, St. Paul’s, and Harvard.” Eventually he managed to overcome the editor’s resistance, and the student got the internship. Such skepticism about midwestern students abounds, he says. A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Hudson says that the Ivy League network operating there gives students access to a much broader range of job opportunities than is available at the Missouri J-school, as respected as it is. “I’m sure that that bias has an effect on what we read,” he adds.

With an election year fast approaching, reporters from the East and West coasts will soon begin their quadrennial “rediscovery” of Iowa. They’ll spend a few days interviewing locals in diners and at hardware stores, trying to take the “pulse” of Middle America. They’ll stop by the Des Moines Register for the requisite interview with the columnist David Yepsen. Then it’ll be off to New Hampshire. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to assign a reporter to Iowa or Ohio for a full year before the election so that he or she could get some real insight into what the people there are thinking? That would certainly beat having to listen to another round of pundits in New York and Washington trying to make sense of the 2008 exit polls.

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.