Archive | January, 2012

S.C. postcard (2): Stereotypes save time, but …

29 Jan

The South Carolina GOP primary on Jan. 21 is already fading into the distance—maybe especially to Newt Gingrich. Even so, as I thought about my voting-day visit there, I kept coming back to at least one takeaway: Curb the stereotypes. An old lesson, maybe, but one that apparently needs repeating.

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The stereotype, in this case, is someone who is a belligerent, ultra-conservative white Christian (probably Baptist), probably racist in deed and attitude if not in word, and eager to create something like a modern-day theocracy. Those folks are out there, to be sure. I met a few of them.

But the picture is more complicated than that, even in Greenwood, a town of 22,000 souls in the rural southwest corner of the state. That is, we’re not talking about a one of the large, more cosmopolitan centers like Charleston, Columbia or even Greenville. Even in little old Greenwood, it’s not clear that the stereotype fits the majority.

For instance, the first person I talked to in Greenwood was Blake Kendrick, associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Greenwood. That congregation is aligned not with the Southern Baptist Convention but the (moderate-progressive-liberal-whatever) Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Let that sink in a moment: First Baptist Church is not a traditional or necessarily conservative Baptist church. For one thing, Kendrick said he and the senior pastor, Tony Hopkins, “believe in the absolute separation of church and state,” a position he says is the historic Baptist position but would also likely put them in the minority of pastors in the area. (Considering the few other pastors I talked with there, he’s probably right about that.)

“The church doesn’t need leaders in the government to endorse Christian ideas to be effective leaders,” Kendrick said. “If a person was another faith that I believed was an effective leader and would make a good decisions, then I’d be more prone to vote for those proven abilities as a leader than religious ideas. … I say any candidate who’s using religious jargon: you immediately lost credit—and credibility.”

The population of Greenwood is anything but monolithic, with a population that was about 44 percent white and about 44 percent African-American in the 2010 census.

Given the state’s charged racial history, it would be easy to conclude that Caucasians rule the roost or that the black citizens are passive. It would also be easy to assume that the Republicans dominate the politics, especially since Greenwood County voted solidly for the GOP presidential candidates the last two elections. (About 60 percent of the county’s vote went to John McCain in 2008.)

Renee Little working at Greenwood's 2nd precinct during the Jan. 21 primary

Both assumptions would be wrong. Almost one-third of the county’s 37,953 registered voters are African-American, and they are active. Floyd Nicholson, who’s not only African-American but also a Democrat, served as the town’s mayor from 1994 to 2008—until he was elected state senator. Two of the six city council members, including Mayor Pro Tem Linda Edwards, are African-American. (They also are two of the three women on the council.)

Even Barack Obama added to Greenwood electoral lore, when he visited early in his 2008 campaign, while he was still a long-shot. Three poll workers at Precinct 2, which is predominantly African-American, gleefully told how one of their friends, Edith Childs, woke up an early-morning, sparsely attended gathering with the candidate with a call-and-response that took on a life of its own in the national campaign: “Fired up? Ready to go?” Obama still likes to tell the story.

This isn’t to ignore real differences and divisions that exist, or the fact that stereotypes evolve for a reason. Political scientists and pollsters build their careers on broadbrush analysis that explains why South Carolina votes one way and New Hampshire votes another.

Maybe that’s why it’s easy to forget that no place is merely the sum of its stereotypes and individuals are bigger than our labels. Most of us are more complex, more nuanced, more varied and even more intelligent than that, at least on our good days.

I confess it’s tempting, especially during an election season, to start a sentence with these lazy words: “Those people are just a bunch of …”

Greenwood reminded me that’s a temptation to resist.

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Primary postcards from South Carolina (1)

24 Jan

The four GOP candidates debated in Charleston, S.C.: Santorum, Romney, Gingrich and Paul. Gingrich received a standing ovation for his put-down of the "elite media" after moderator John King opened with a question about Gingrich's open marriage.

We need to read only a few descriptions of South Carolina politics before a few c-words keep coming up: combative, conservative and Christian.

So what did religion have to do with Newt Gingrich’s primary victory in South Carolina on Saturday?

Not a lot.

When it came to pulling the lever, voters who identified themselves as Christians, and specifically as evangelicals, pulled for Gingrich, a converted Roman Catholic. long-time Washington insider and confessed serial adulterer.

He beat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney easily, 40 percent to 28 percent. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the candidate endorsed by a group of 150 evangelical leaders a week before, finished a distant third. “I like Santorum personally,” one pastor told me, “but he’s not strong enough” to beat the president. So much for the power of formal evangelical endorsements.

Gingrich, on the other hand, made the case that he’d be the Republican tough and distinctive enough to defeat President Obama in November. And getting Obama out of the White House was the top agenda item on GOP minds in South Carolina.

By 9:30 Saturday morning, Ashley Woodiwiss, a political scientist at Erskine College, knew the day would belong to the former Speaker of the House. Last-minute polls placed Gingrich up by 7 or 8 percentage points. Those were low-ball figures, it turned out. Only a week earlier, Romney was leading.

Gingrich’s turnaround came after one of his ex-wives revealed two days before the voting that he had asked for an “open marriage.” Instead of running away from the revelation, Gingrich turned it into an attack on the news media. At the Thursday-night debate, CNN correspondent and moderator John King gave the candidate an easy target by leading with a question about the affair. Gingrich went after King and blasted the “liberal media elite” (always a safe play). “That sealed the deal,” Woodiwiss said. “We like strong personalities.”

No kidding. South Carolina, after all, gave us Tea-Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, Rep. Joe Wilson (famous for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama during a 2009 speech to Congress about health care) and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond—not to mention the opening scene of the War Between the States, AKA the Civil War. South Carolina can be combative, remember.

Gingrich won every county in the state, except for a few around the largest cities, Charleston and Columbia, which Romney claimed. Gingrich took several of the most rural, far-flung counties by two-to-one margins.

I spent the day in Greenwood, a small town about 55 miles south of Greenville, to talk about religion and politics. The town is home to Lander University and about 23,000 residents, almost evenly white and black, according to the 2010 census.

It’s also home to one of the highest unemployment rates in the state (well over 10 percent), one of the highest and fastest-growing poverty rates in the country (about 38 percent), and one of the lowest high school graduation rates (about 30 percent of adults don’t have the diploma). By just about every economic and educational measure, Greenwood makes the rest of the state look strong.

I spoke to more than dozen people on Saturday, including a few Episcopalians, a Methodist and a Mormon couple. Most, however, were Southern Baptists. (That generally fits the profile of Greenwood County, which boasts at least 116 congregations for about 69,000 residents.)

By no means a scientific sampling, but only one person expressed the slightest concern about Romney’s Mormon faith, and none felt misgivings about Santorum’s and Gingrich’s Catholicism. Ron Paul attends a Baptist church in Texas, but that didn’t win him any of these particular votes. Serious doctrinal differences counted for almost nothing. Denominational identity counted for even less.

As for Gingrich’s moral baggage, Alvin Hodges, the senior pastor of Rice Memorial Baptist Church (and a South Carolina native), summed up the consensus view: Gingrich confessed, apologized and “tried to make it right. It’s not an issue now.” All is forgiven.

“Values voters are as pragmatic as anyone,” Woodiwiss, the political scientist, pointed out. “The No. 1 goal (for Republicans) is to beat Obama. Who’s best to beat him? It’s about ideology, not theology.”

More postcards to come …

Q: Should newspapers fact-check candidates? A: Define ‘fact check.’ Or maybe define ‘newspaper.’

16 Jan

A friend sent me the link to a post from the left-leaning Alternet (click here), about a brouhaha over whether the New York Times should be “fact checking” the presidential candidates. The dust-up started because, among other things, the Times reporters never called out GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for falsely claiming in stump speeches that President Obama gives speeches “apologizing for America.” (One of the Times columnists did.)

So Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ “public editor” (AKA ombudsman), put it to his readers: Should Times reporters engage is fact checking the candidates’ claims in their stories? You can probably guess what readers said–loudly. (One sample: “Is this a joke? THIS IS YOUR JOB.”) His responses to the criticisms attracted even more scorn.

To be fair, I wonder how Brisbane was defining “fact checking.” He may have in mind a PolitiFact model of publishing “scorecards” and rating the “truthiness” of specific statements. The Times is NOT set up for that kind of blow-by-blow tracking, nor are many news organizations. Even when NPR pointed out Romney’s error on Jan. 10, its report cited Politifact.com as a source.

That’s not to let them off the hook, especially since there’s some uncomfortable prior history of the Times not being thorough in fact checking. (See: Judith Miller and the case for invading Iraq in 2003.) More profoundly, the news media are supposed to be the “Fourth Estate,” the so-called watchdog of those in authority (and those who would be in authority). A healthy, working democracy needs a vibrant, vigilant media: That’s Poli Sci 101. (Exhibit A: The tagline on the Columbia Journalism Review: “Strong Press, Strong Democracy.”)

So this is a matter of priorities and focus. What’s the goal of the Times’ campaign coverage? If I had to guess, I’d say they see their main job as telling people what happened or what was said on the campaign trail, day by day. Cleaning up the statements of candidates is secondary, something to do when or if possible or when there’s such an obvious howler that it can’t be ignored (or maybe if it’s just so easy to catch).

This isn’t the best way to cover a presidential campaign–what with the future of the country at stake and all–and I doubt anyone in the Times newsroom would say it was. I don’t believe many reporters want to give Romney or “the establishment” or even Obama a free pass. Most journalists have more professional integrity than that. (If you can’t believe that, maybe you can believe they’d just love to win a Pulitzer by uncovering the next Watergate.) I think the lapse in “fact checking” is more a matter of microeconomics than macroeconomics or ideology.

This problem is a result of ever-shrinking newsrooms being overwhelmed by an ever-expanding amounts of information and PR, especially coming from well-funded campaigns like Romney’s (and when the time comes, Obama’s). If the Times’ newsroom is like most others in the U.S., as well endowed as it is, it has likely cut its research staff to the bone, if not eliminated it altogether. At the same time, thanks to the handheld technology of iPhones and tablets and the glories of the Internet and 24/7 cable TV news, reporters must file multiple stories or updates each day, sometimes dozens. That simply leaves too much information for too few workers with too little time to sort, analyze and explain. I’m sure campaign managers have figured out that they can avoid a lot of close, timely scrutiny if they simply swamp the newsrooms.

Why is this happening, if it’s damaging the ability of reporters to actually do their jobs? The newsroom is not the boardroom. Corporations that own media outlets have been cutting newsroom staff and resources for more than a decade to increase their bottom lines. (Just a handful of multinational corporations own thousands of newspapers and other news outlets in the U.S.) The financial interests of company stockholders can trump the political interests of citizen stakeholders. Ironically, I’m convinced, this is penny wise and pound foolish, as the old saying goes: As news owners milk short-term profits by slashing reporting resources, they’re damaging their outlets’ long-term value in the process. Why would anyone pay for thin reporting or PR pass-alongs?

There’s one more log to throw on this fire: Thanks to the Citizens United decision, all corporations–including those that own media–can boot up their donations to political campaigns. (Tangential question: If corporations have First Amendment rights like individuals–and therefore can give money to political campaigns–shouldn’t they be allowed to vote? I’m confused. If “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” then the Supreme Court is inconsistent and ignoring reality.) The net effect: Corporate support for journalism (i.e., the public interest) is down. Corporate support for partisan politics (i.e., personal and company benefits) is up.

This isn’t a conspiracy. It’s just one of the results of a social and political culture that has more and more organized itself around self-interest and profit. So we don’t only get the government we deserve. We also get the government watchdogs we deserve.

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Postscript, Jan. 18: This pot continues to boil. Go here for a thoughtful discussion of the New York Times’ fact-checking controversy, courtesy of Lucas Graves and the Nieman Journalism Lab.

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