Staring Contest

How election reporters see us, and how we view them

Melinda Beck

To be at the center of a media frenzy is to be sucked into a vortex. Eventually, you get spit out. But even if you’re able to get back where you came from, nothing is ever the same, because it’s been documented in stories broadcasting a bizarro version of the truth you thought you knew. Right now the obsession of the press is the uprising against white supremacy in the United States and elsewhere. Before that, it was the coronavirus. But just weeks before the pandemic arrived in our midst—while it was spreading through China and Europe—the central story in American news outlets was Iowa, and its first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Iowa attracts attention on a regular schedule: every four years, for a quadrennial media corn hump. Those of us who live here anticipate the press hordes and the TV news vans. At some point, it feels like every one of us has been on CNN. We are used to being background players in a story who sometimes get cast in outsize roles. We are used to having the camera turned on us, and then away. If you want to understand how that feels, you need to know about Ranch Girl.

Ranch Girl’s real name is Hanna Kinney, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa. Like so many of us in Iowa, Kinney loves ranch dip. Ranch—made with buttermilk, onions, garlic, and dill—is a pedestrian condiment, whose appeal is that it is a neutralizing force, a cool contrast with salty and spicy foods. It’s nice to have around, even if it doesn’t offer much in the way of flavor. People here who love ranch know that the Airliner, a tin-ceilinged college bar in Iowa City, has some great house-made ranch. Kinney used to go there to meet for Bible study. On February 19, 2019, she was upstairs, sitting in a vinyl booth, ready to eat some pizza. To her great disappointment, it was served without a side of ranch.

So Kinney walked downstairs and pushed her way through throngs of people to get some ranch for herself. She figured it was a political crowd. It was Iowa, February 2019, and Democratic politicians were running for president. Marianne Williamson, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders were all making the rounds. Kinney had almost reached the ranch when a woman, surrounded by Airliner patrons, patted her on the shoulder. Kinney, determined, pressed on. “Sorry, I’m just trying to get some ranch,” she said.

“That’s so Iowa,” a voice replied. Everyone laughed.

Kinney wasn’t trying to be funny. She’d been trying to weave her way through without interrupting anyone, but the bar is small, and there had been no way of avoiding this group. Being from Iowa, where we apologize when we open doors for people, Kinney said she was sorry. It was a fleeting moment, completely normal and forgettable. But as it turned out, the woman who’d patted Kinney’s shoulder was Gillibrand. The exchange was filmed and shared on Twitter by a CNN reporter. Soon, Kinney went viral.

She was in the Washington Post, New York magazine’s Intelligencer, and other outlets. She was mentioned on Jimmy Fallon’s show. Jim Gaffigan tweeted that he loved her. Meghan McCain tweeted that Ranch Girl was a folk hero. Raygun, a local company, made T-shirts with i’m just trying to get some ranch printed on them. Litehouse Foods sent her a minifridge stocked with ranch. Wish-Bone sent her dozens of bottles. For National Ranch Day, Hidden Valley flew her to Las Vegas.

Linh Ta, a reporter for the Iowa Capital Dispatch, was in the Airliner when the Kinney-Gillibrand run-in happened. It’s her favorite incident from the primary cycle. And she understands why it lit up the internet. “It’s so perfectly Iowa,” she told me. “It is us: the apology, the ranch.” To the media, Ranch Girl was a symbol, a “typical” Iowan caught in the middle of a political swarm. Zack Kucharski, the executive editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette (where I’m a columnist), brings up Ranch Girl when I ask him what it’s like to be a journalist in a state that is, every four years, obsessed over and then kicked away by the national press. “It’s like that,” he told me. “These little moments you’d never think anything of, that are so normal, so commonplace, are suddenly weird and scrutinized, celebrated but also mocked.”

Kinney took everything in stride. It was funny, after all. But as soon as she was captured by the media and put on Twitter, Kinney was made an exaggeration. Republicans held her up as an example of everyday folks irritated at Democrats. (She wasn’t. She’s politically active and left-leaning.) Worse, she saw herself everywhere signifying all that’s wrong with the Iowa caucuses, including retail politics and questionable food choices. “You know, what bothered me more is when people said, ‘In Iowa we only care about our ranch, not these politics. Get out of our state,’ ” Kinney told me recently. “And I was like, ‘No, please do your civic duty. Please vote. Please be aware.’ It’s just like all these weird interpretations of a moment that is literally five seconds long—and I had no agenda. I literally was there just to get my ranch, and then all of a sudden the internet is like, ‘How much can we dissect this video? What can we take away from it?’ ”

Ranch Girl can’t possibly represent the totality of Iowa. But that’s what political reporters come and seek—a fragment that can stand in for the whole. Kinney provided easy shorthand for campaign coverage, like many Iowans before her. The net result, over the years, has been a parade of stereotypes.

People here in Iowa don’t like that. And now, in these quiet quarantine days, when electoral politics have retreated indoors, the memories ring in our heads. The trouble is not just that we’ve been used as characters in some campaign story. What worries us more, now that coverage has moved on, is what happens if the country thinks of us as less than fully human.

What worries us is what happens when journalists describe people in Iowa as less than fully human.

 

Iowa’s caucuses became first in the primary season by accident. Before 1968, they were held in the middle of the nominating cycle. But things changed with that year’s Democratic convention, in late August, at the International Amphitheatre, in Chicago. The convention was supposed to showcase the city, but instead it displayed Mayor Richard Daley’s brutal use of force against activists. As delegates arrived in town, so did protesters, who had come to rally against the war in Vietnam. Over the course of the event, demonstrators set up an encampment; ten thousand people gathered in Grant Park. The convention hall was surrounded by a steel fence topped with barbed wire and manned by armed officers. Members of the National Guard were sent in and ordered to shoot to kill; police wielded Mace and tear gas. The city erupted in riots.

At one point, Dan Rather, trying to interview a delegate from Georgia, got shoved by a security officer. Walter Cronkite caught the episode on camera. When Rather broke free, he said to Cronkite, “We tried to talk to the man and we got violently pushed out of the way. This is the kind of thing that has been going on outside the hall; this is the first time we’ve had it happen inside the hall.” He paused for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry to be out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach.”

“We got a bunch of thugs here, Dan,” Cronkite replied. The chaos of American politics was on display, on live television, in all its awfulness. Viewers couldn’t look away. Seeking civility and order, the electorate turned to a conservative; the winner of the presidential race that November was Richard Nixon.

Afterward, Democrats had to regroup. Reforms, rolled out in 1972, aimed to clean up corruption in the party system, in part by mandating that states shift their primaries earlier. Iowa moved itself to the front of the line. Essentially, the reforms required that there be four layers to the caucus process, with meetings at the precinct, county, state, and national levels. Each of these meetings needed a revised set of documents. The Iowa Democratic Party had only a single old mimeograph machine to make copies. So Iowa’s Democrats figured, with a national convention in July, they’d have to give themselves plenty of time.

When the change was made, no one cared that Iowa was first in the nation. It was Iowa, after all. But the media would generate its own obsession. In 1972, George McGovern, a little-known liberal senator from South Dakota, was widely believed to be a long shot against Ed Muskie, a prominent senator from Maine. McGovern walked the state, sometimes campaigning alone. On caucus night the party didn’t plan to release the outcome, so R.W. Apple, a reporter for the New York Times, got in touch with Richard Bender, an Iowa Democratic official, who set up a phone tree with precinct captains. Bender calculated votes by hand and shared the outcome with Apple. The resulting story reported that Muskie had won, but barely. McGovern had a real chance, the article observed. Overnight, the national narrative changed.

Apple, sometimes called Johnny Apple, has been described by his own newspaper as having “Churchillian brio and Falstaffian appetites.” He was an unusual guy, one who took the time to learn the intricacies of the caucus process. He talked to people in towns all over the state and wrote about their opinions. No one had bothered to listen to Iowans before. And because Apple listened, in 1976 he was the first to report that Jimmy Carter—the former governor of Georgia, a man barely known outside that state—was a contender for the presidency.

In an interview on c-span, Carter recalled how Apple made Iowa Iowa. “It was not until Johnny Apple, New York Times, went out in the countryside in Iowa and talked to people—you know, teachers and policemen and I guess bartenders and others. And he sized up what we already knew about Iowa and wrote a headline in the New York Times…that I might come in first.” Other reporters, Carter said, “were lookin’ at me as comin’ in fifth or sixth, because they very seldom got out of Des Moines.”

After that, Republicans got in on the game. In 1980, George H.W. Bush came and made his name here, winning the caucuses. He didn’t go on to seize the nomination, but he became vice president. The lore of Iowa—that you could show up as an unknown politician and get a shot at the presidency—became a political mandate.

A similar lesson applied to journalism. Because Apple had revealed the promise of Carter by showing readers how Iowans saw him, other reporters began to believe that if they, too, went to Iowa, and if they talked to farmers or policemen or bartenders, they could reveal something new about American politics that no one else had observed. So they came and they come, every four years, to fuss over our caucus and our bales of straw.

Look beyond easy-access sources, those who are in power, and talk to people at the margins.

 

It’s brutal. Ty Rushing, the managing editor of the N’West Iowa Review, in Sheldon, told me how weird it is to be at the center of the storm as candidates and national media blow in and out of your city. So many stories get facts and feelings wrong. “It’s frustrating when you live here and work here and love it here and you see Axios file an article about rural Iowa with the location line from Cedar Rapids,” he said. For starters, Cedar Rapids is not rural; it’s the state’s second-largest city. And then there are the misplaced cultural assumptions: Rushing brought up the example of a tweet from an editor at Politico who complained that Iowa’s coffee shops have no almond milk. We laughed about that. Did she ask? It’s usually right behind the counter.

Rushing works with a staff of a dozen writers and editors to produce four weekly community newspapers and a few niche magazines; they also publish stories online. Across the country, newsrooms like his have been gutted in recent years, working above capacity for low pay, and the situation will only worsen as the economic impact of the coronavirus is felt in its full effect. The staff of the N’West Iowa Review doesn’t have the ability or budget to jump every time a candidate says so. Especially if they’re informed at the last minute—and they always are. Many campaigns travel with embedded reporters from national outlets; front-runners rarely seem to care about local media. To Rushing, it can feel like candidates think of his city as a quaint backdrop to a Washington Post story, and little more.

Rushing is weary of reading the same names quoted by the national press over and over. Often, it’s Bob and Sue Dvorsky, an influential and politically active couple; Sue once served as the Iowa Democratic chair. A quick Google search pulls up no fewer than ten articles in which they’ve been quoted in the past year, from Bloomberg News, The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Herald. It’s exhausting, too, to see how superficially Iowa is described. A 2011 article in The Atlantic by a professor named Stephen G. Bloom is a classic of the shit-on-Iowa genre. He calls Iowa—where he lives and teaches at the state university—“a schizophrenic, economically-depressed,” and “culturally-challenged” place full of Jesus-loving, gun-toting white people who take their dates to tractor pulls. (It’s been almost a decade and people here still haven’t forgiven him.) Writing on Iowa for Elle, Cintra Wilson describes “surly women around 30 who had been savaged by love and taken to expressing their rage through softball and tattoos.” Even nice depictions get us wrong. The Washington Post’s Max Boot, in his cloying description of the Iowa State Fair, writes that “Iowa nice” has “survived in an age of snark, sarcasm, and mass shootings.” Except that “Iowa nice” is really just repressed midwestern rage, the kind best demonstrated by Amy Klobuchar toward Pete Buttigieg in the Democratic debates, with her withering stares and icy-bland statements that to the rest of the country mean nothing, but to us, in Iowa, connote the heartiest of fuck-yous.

Plenty of other places receive similar treatment, when it’s their turn for a primary or fifteen minutes of random news attention from parachuting reporters. The result is caricature. Mississippi: swamp people. West Virginia: bitter backwards coal miners. Wuhan: wild meat markets. Joseph Jaafari, a reporter and documentary filmmaker, teaches a journalism class at the City University of New York and has observed that some of his students distrust the press because of how their neighborhoods have been covered. “They’re first-generation Black and Latino,” Jaafari told me. “They were really kind of disenchanted by the fact that all these outlets kept writing about the hatchet-wielding guy or the shootings and stabbings on Parsons Boulevard.” It’s disappointing, he said. “The entire edict of journalism is that we are voicing the voiceless.”

Covering a place well is hard. And, as Rushing told me, the stories about Iowa aren’t entirely wrong. “We are farmers in diners,” he said. “We do have people who voted for that racist Steve King”—the Republican congressman who recently wondered aloud when the term white supremacist became so offensive—“but it’s not all we are.” In June, during a primary, Iowans voted King out of Congress. We are mostly white—at 90 percent of the population—but not everyone is. Iowans are joining in the anti-racist protests that have risen up around the world. Iowans own guns and went for Donald Trump in 2016, but not all of us are like the Dorr brothers—Chris, Ben, Aaron, and Matthew—who created Facebook groups to protest coronavirus-related restrictions. My friends and neighbors have been making masks. Our medical professionals have been treating patients. And even after our governor, Kim Reynolds, a Republican, pushed to reopen businesses in the state, many have remained hesitant to rejoin regular life.

Now that the political press is stuck at home, for the most part, covering the campaigns from quarantine, the people of Iowa are even more distant from the consciousness of national media. Yet at the same time, we are a hotbed of infection. As of this writing, covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has killed about five hundred sixty people in Iowa and infected over twenty thousand. There are stories about this in the national press, but mostly they’re examples of unmasked people in crowded bars or the rates of infection at food processing plants. These articles rarely include the voices of people who work in the plants, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. And when Reynolds announced that she would outsource coronavirus testing to a tech startup in Utah—one with no healthcare experience—the arrangement received little interest from major news organizations, even though it merited caucus-level scrutiny.

I often wonder if the limits of our reporting define the limits of our empathy. Obsessing over stereotypes, instead of real people, has consequences. A story about Iowa will go viral if it shows white farmers gathering to drink Busch Light in the midst of a pandemic. But what about the essential workers who are showing up to Iowa’s assembly lines despite the risks of a deadly disease and deportation? Those characters get written out of the story, to everyone’s detriment. If the coronavirus teaches journalists a lesson—one that would apply to the caucuses, too—it ought to be about humility and nuance. It’s critical that we look beyond the easy-access sources, those who are in power, and talk to people at the margins, those who don’t fit so easily into the established narrative. Journalists come, obsess, and leave—okay, that’s fine. The least they owe their subjects is complexity on the page.

 

The night of the 2020 caucuses, Tim Carty, a resident of Iowa City, sent the Cedar Rapids Gazette a column: “An Open Letter from an Iowan Who Only Had One Job.”  The piece, which was quickly published, addressed reports of delays and inconsistencies in the voting results. Carty was seething. “Once the caucus is over, we’re out of the headlines,” he wrote. “Gone. Out of sight. Out of mind. Once every four years the world shines a harsh spotlight on Iowa, expecting immediate perfection and pointing out all the ways we don’t measure up. You mock us for our flaws, our lack of diversity, our folksy kindness and humility. Then you demand flawlessness. That’s. Not. Fair.” That month, Carty’s column was one of the most read stories on the Gazette website. People in Iowa were grateful; their exasperation had been expressed.

Carty’s outrage reminded me of something I’d experienced a month earlier, at the condo of a former lawmaker who was hosting an event for undecided caucus-goers. Rep. Katie Porter was there, a surrogate for Warren, so the gathering drew some press. The home was in a new neighborhood in town, one that had been rebuilt since historic floods hit our area in 2008. The walls were painted shades of green—mint and forest—and the chairs were comfy worn leather. A pair of gentle, aging golden retrievers roamed around. Guests congregated at a huge table with a cheese tray from the local grocery chain. They were friends and neighbors, people I knew not from reporting, but just from living in town for fifteen years. It was easy to spot the reporters, hovering awkwardly.

I saw one from a national outlet sprawl across two chairs while a pair of women, invited guests in their late seventies, stood. I almost went up to the guy to tell him to move. But a friend of mine, someone who goes to my church, recognized my agitation and stopped me with a pat on the arm. “He’s just a reporter boy,” she said. “Let him be.”

Later that evening, after Porter had given a speech and as everyone was politely eating cheese, the same reporter approached a local city council member and asked her why she was undecided. My friend from church took him aside and kindly pointed to others in the room, people who were not politically affiliated. “You want to talk to a normal person, talk to her or him,” she said, gesturing to neighbors in opposite corners. He didn’t do it. I know because I read the story he filed afterward, and laughed at his description of a man he interviewed, someone very active in the Democratic Party, as “an undecided Iowan.”

It might not be fair to scrutinize a writer I met only once on the campaign trail. Maybe by focusing on him I’m taking something small and making it more than the sum total of a person. But is turnabout fair play? At least I didn’t call him surly. And it seems to me that he signifies something about the quadrennial obsession with Iowa, about the missed opportunities of parachute reporting, and about the humiliation caused by stereotyping a state over and over, for as long as American democracy stands.

It’s not enough to perch at a distance and report on the weird goings-on of people seen from afar. Members of the press don’t merely observe, of course; the stories we tell affect people’s lives. To ignore that would seem to miss the point of journalism. The campaign writer who sprawled out on the chairs might leave Iowa and not come back until the caucuses start up again, but the women standing next to him will remain here—and live in the residue of the media’s depictions. At this moment, because they’re old enough to be considered at high risk for the coronavirus, they’re feeling especially vulnerable. The other day, I contacted them to ask if they were okay. They were, they both said, but they’re scared.

The stories of these women—and Ranch Girl, and the meat-processing-plant workers—continue on after the political press goes home. Whether they live or die, keep their jobs or struggle to pay rent—these are the political concerns they’re left to contend with outside the quadrennial spectacle that draws major outlets. Maybe that reporter from the event is writing more nuanced stories now—I can only hope. We have about four years until the next follow-up.

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Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @lyzl.