Michael Cruse’s Politico feature on a depressed Pennsylvania town is one of the most frustrating news stories I have read this year.
Kruse interviews a variety of President Donald Trump’s supporters, most of whom are still loyal to the president, despite his administration not improving the town’s dire condition. Several of them are openly bigoted and seemingly unhinged from reality. There are several shocking quotes that are certain to offend and disgust readers and the feature is a generally disheartening and hopeless read that offers no practical solutions to anything.
You’ve probably this article, or one exactly like it, several times this year.
Please understand, I have nothing against Politico or Kruse in particular. Though it’s worth noting that several of the town’s community leaders, including the mayor, published a sharp criticism of Kruse’s report in a letter to Politico, that hardly means Kruse misinterpreted the Johnstown community. I’ve never been to Johnstown so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the article. The problem is, accurate or not, the article’s uncritical coverage of racists who have no grasp on reality is a prime example of staggering editorial malpractice.
These kinds of deep dives into the psyches of Trump’s most repellent supporters, such the unrepentant racists who were quoted using a racial epitaph at the end of Kruse’s piece, are worse than useless, yet major news outlets have an apparent fetish for endlessly churning out such articles. Just last week, CNN published a profile on a town whose supporters “just weren’t ready for a woman president.” Though its focus was somewhat different, the New York Times’ recent puff piece on a literal Nazi was similarly aggravating due to its sheer pointlessness.
What do we learn from these pieces? To focus on Kruse’s feature, we learn that vehement racists and other diehard Trump loyalists will support the president whether or not he keeps his campaign promises. That might be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s newsworthy.
Beyond revealing the obvious fact that racist people are…racist, Kruse’s article doesn’t really raise any other points. Reasonable people reading his article have cause for frustration, given that Trump supporters quoted in the article claim that the president has kept his promises when that is clearly not the case in reality. It presents the Johnstown population as dogmatic and racist yokels that cannot be reasoned with. These kinds of harmful stereotypes about the populations of small town American cities are gleefully perpetuated in the news media, and they’re only hurting the industry’s credibility.
Instead of focusing on the fact that racist people are indeed racist, it would’ve been more productive for Kruse to ask his interview subjects if Trump’s implemented policies — or, as the author suggests, his failure to keep campaign promises — have had a direct, meaningful impact on their lives. I’m an advocate for Briahna Joy Gray’s’s insightful Current Affairs article that discusses how to talk to white supremacists. That’s not to imply that the people Kruse interviewed fall under that ideology, but the ideas that Gray raises still apply. Focusing on the basic fact that racist people are racist isn’t insightful (from a journalistic standpoint, anyway) and doesn’t help us learn anything, so there’s no reason to do it. If we’re going to interview these kinds of people, we need to be asking productive and critical questions.
If there was something timely about Johnstown that justified Kruse’s article, he made no mention of it. There’s no real sense of how Trump’s administration has impacted the community or how the president’s policies could affect Johnstown going forward, and there’s certainly no analysis of what Johnstown’s residents’ apparent beliefs mean on a national scale.
These articles aren’t improving The Discourse. No mildly intelligent political strategists, social activists or reasonable people in general believe that you’re going to convince Pepes or other diehard Trump supporters that they’re wrong by quoting facts about the Trump administration. No Klan members are hanging up their robes for Black Lives Matter apparel because of these features. On that level, weak overviews of right-leaning communities such as Kruse’s Johnstown piece are clear failures that contribute nothing to serious cultural or political conversations.
So why do news organizations push these stories? We’re well past the point of editorial impartiality being an acceptable excuse. The New York Times is widely regarded a liberal organization and hiring racist climate change denier Bret Stephens or the similarly psychopathic Erick Erickson isn’t changing that perception, nor is publishing the aforementioned profile of a random Nazi. Hiring or covering individuals with views that are widely agreed to be horrific is the laziest form of diversification imaginable. Furthermore, if providing uncritical coverage of racists, sexists and literal Nazis is considered balanced, ethical journalism, then the industry has become far too complacent. Simply being racist, sexist or otherwise openly awful shouldn’t be a news hook.
Is it a financial thing? I’ll admit, the New York Times’ “Nazi Next Door” profile sounds sexy from a marketing perspective. It’s dramatic and scary, much like the racial epitaph quoted in the end of Kruse’s article, which means it has a good chance of drawing high web traffic or newspaper sales. For many, it’s understandable that “Look at How Racist This Person Is!” might be much more exciting than a complex investigative analysis of how poor black Americans could be especially disadvantaged by certain aspects of the GOP tax plan. But that’s a really cynical take, so let’s try not to put too much credence into it.
Whatever the reason, it’s worth considering how the resources funneled into these pieces could be put to better use. We can probably assume that Politico had to pay for Kruse and his photographer to travel to Johnstown, not to mention room and board. There’s also the fact that the feature must’ve taken a considerable amount of time to report on, write about and edit.
Rather than giving people such as Richard Spencer or the no-namers in Kruse’s article a legitimate platform to espouse their horrible ideologies, what if those resources were instead used to analyze how underrepresented communities are being impacted by the nation’s current political climate? What if the resources spent on the Johnstown story were instead used to spotlight political or social activists that are trying to create positive change in such depressed communities? Certainly these kinds of stories would be superior, right?
Covering and reaching out to these kinds of individuals and communities can be important for both journalists and political activists but going forward the reporting needs to be more nuanced than “bad people are bad.” Instead of wallowing in despair about the worst adherents to a political ideology, let’s focus on producing stories with meaningful angles that can actually result in positive change.