All Politics is Local News
When presidential campaigns get ugly, presidential candidates go local. In the weeks to come, look for George Bush and John Kerry to don jeans and flannel shirts and let the handshakes fly at diners and hair salons nationwide.
Made-for-media photo ops are the aim of this game, but politicians long ago lost the common touch, the ability to relate to everyday people. If you want to find the real voice of the common American voter -- the sort of person the media and the presidential candidates claim to be representing -- you can't go looking on CNN or in USA Today. This person lives and breathes among us, but only in the pages of small-town newspapers across the country.
Seeing Red and Blue
Big media's election coverage is America observed through Karl Rove-a-Vision: an elaborate chess match of "us versus them." Red states contain nothing but conservatives (Republicans, Jesus freaks, whites, anti-gay zealots, rigid war supporters, hicks), while blue states are all liberal hotbeds (Democrats, independents, homosexuals, arty types, anti-war hippies, big-city snobs, minorities). By comparison, swing states represent an exciting election drama waiting to unfold -- they've got a little red and blue in 'em.
But are we really nothing but predestined voting types, inflexible, unreasonable, and indistinguishable?
Open a small-town newspaper, and that oversimplification doesn't compute. Local elections offer optimistic, maybe even idealized testimony to the importance of an individual's vote, and to the common humanity of the participants and candidates.
Go to Florida and read The Palm Beach Post's profile of a city-commissioner nominee who went door-to-door with his four kids (two biological, two adopted -- one Asian, one black) asking for votes.
Travel to New Mexico for The Portales News-Tribune's piece on a city-council election that was won 165-votes-to-56, which inspired the victor to say, "I'll work hard to validate the confidence the 165 people have in me and try to do a good job here."
Reading these articles, you get caught up in how ordinary folks run for office, and how ordinary folks vote for these people. Nowhere in these pages will you see the endless op-ed predictions and unreliable polls that distract the national media from its job. After all, if any of the national media's pre-primaries calculations had been accurate, John Kerry right now would be endorsing Howard Dean and not vice versa.
Short-Sighted View from 43rd Street
As we question politicians' disconnection with voters' lives, so should we recognize the all-powerful national media's similar disinterest in understanding the average American.
The New York Times' recently reported on a Colorado town divided over gay marriage. Rather than make an honest attempt to investigate the character of the city of Greeley, the article treats the town like some bizarre African tribe cut off from civilization.
"Greeley, with a population of 77,000, is not without its cultural diversity," we are informed, "and even has a gay bar, Big Daddy's, on the outskirts of town." (Even those oddballs in Colorado have gay bars now! And what a delightfully funny name! How droll!) The reporter wants the Times' sophisticated-urbanite readership to sniff in superiority at this little town with its cute disagreements over a potential election-deciding issue. Forget understanding a community -- let's characterize and typecast.
This is not the approach of local reporters. Take the Natchez Democrat's lack of pretension when covering the Ferriday, Louisiana's mayoral election. Incumbent Glen McGlothin, days before the vote, fought accusations that he instructed a deputy to "place fear in black voters prior to the election." McGlothin, a white man, denied the charge, saying "I wish people wouldn't resort to this. It's not good for the town." Nevertheless, in his four years in office, he has faced no less than four recall petitions, one for supposed preferential treatment to white citizens. For a town with less than 4,000 residents, approximately 75 percent of which are black, it seems amazing that McGlothin eventually survived to reach a two-man runoff in this city's general election in April.
Effortlessly, The Natchez Democrat gives you a palpable sense of community, that feeling of lives intersecting, that realization that one town's race relations are far trickier than "red state/blue state" simplicity can acknowledge.
As we prepare for a presidential election that will once again focus time and money on those key "battleground" states that boast sizable amounts of electoral votes, smaller communities in less-populous states feel as invisible as ever. Ultimately, though, the guys at News Corp. and the Associated Press hold more sway than small-town papers do for determining the tenor of a race; after all, this November's presidential election will draw more than the 221 voters that decided Portales' city council.
Each step along the election cycle gives big media outlets a chance to assert their authority as they handicap the outcome as if the White House was the political equivalent of the Oscars or a Super Bowl championship. (Who can forget Tim Russert's boyish glee and dry wipe board back in 2000 as he played "Guess Those Electoral Votes"?)
But before Matt Drudge, Bill O'Reilly, TIME, and Charlie Rose start lazily dividing the nation between red and blue, they might first want to try recognizing this nation as an unpredictable collection of voters. Millions of interesting individuals reside in this country; the national media should at least attempt to get to know them.
Tim Grierson is an editor of The Simon, a weekly online publication of culture, politics, and humor.