A few weeks ago, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain was in Sturgis, N.D. for a biker’s rally. The rally was comprised largely of veterans, a crowd, according to much mainstream media, a colorful segment of the oft touted, much coveted, “blue-collar” vote as the Associated Press reported:
STURGIS, S.D. — Thousands of motorcyclists greeted Republican presidential candidate John McCain with an approving roar Monday as he sought blue-collar and heartland support by visiting a giant motorcycle rally.
While the branding of the event and the crowd as “blue-collar” is itself problematic, we want to focus here on some examples of the story coverage and spin as indicative of what is both wrong and right about the ways journalists experience and report on class. Spinning the story into a referendum on McCain as campaigner, CNN Hardball host Mike Barnicle, ran a clip from McCain’s speech in which the candidate, addressing what he assumed would be the major issue of interest to a crowd of bikers fumbled over his words, eventually honing in on gas prices and his proposal for offshore drilling, shouting, “We’re going to drill here. We’re going to drill now!” to which his guest panelist Howard Fineman of Newsweek speculated on how that crowd would interpret “drilling.” Notably, in the same week, host Mike Barnicle had this to say on the veracity of working-class poll respondents:
Yes. And Clarence, there‘s also the issue that when people are polled—I mean, if you‘re coming out of, you know, the factory gate at 3:00 o‘clock in the afternoon and you have some 22-year-old pollster, a graduate of Harvard or wherever, you know, with a little clipboard, you know, and they ask you about Barack Obama, you know, some people are just going to avoid telling the whole truth. Don‘t you think so?
Embedded in Barnicle’s analysis is an obvious bias that working-class people are in general anti-intellectual and quite often lie. To be sure, a program like Hardball is not really journalism per se, but the attitudes that these commentators relay towards the biker rally reveal much about the pervasive effects of what Brent Cunningham has identified as “the great divide” between journalists and working-class Americans and how this divide leads to both under reporting and skewed reporting of working-class lives and issues, substituting instead easy frames for reporting anchored in sweeping generalizations. One problem is that journalists increasingly no longer come from or belong to the working class, nor are they particularly interested in “everyday” issues that often lack the flair or flash of other news segments. Even when the fusion of working-class issues and the “sexy” stories occurs, as in McCain’s Sturgis gig, however, much of the media paints the “blue-collar” with broad strokes and a distance that can border on mockery, a distance often attributed to the increasing “classing up” of the profession as Matthew DeLong’s account of the Sturgis rally for the Washington Independent reports:
This had to be about the most bizarre campaign backdrop in recent memory — I have probably never felt more out of place. The press table was roughly 50 feet in front of the stage, dead center. We were surrounded on all sides — not surprisingly — by bikers and bikes. Hundreds of them, mostly Harleys. The evening air was warm and dry as the sun was going down; puffy clouds dotted the sky.
The crowd, more than 45 minutes before McCain was scheduled to take the stage, numbered probably several thousand. It seemed in good spirits, and was curious about us. My colleagues from The Washington Post and The New York Times, seated immediately to my left, received a friendly grilling from a female attendee from Michigan, wearing a red bandanna that read “Sturgis ’89” — an old-schooler. An older gentleman in the crowd held a sign saying, “Show Ur Tits 4 McCain.” I can safely say this is one place I never in my life thought I would be — especially not on a presidential campaign stop.
Journalists often find themselves in uncomfortable places and situations and certainly one can find no fault in the correspondent’s “feeling out of place” anymore than we have felt out of place in our careers at KKK rallies, Scientology sessions and numerous other situations. The difficulty comes from the last statement that the correspondent “can safely say this is the one place I never in my life thought I would be,” which suggests the kind of expectations indicative of the shift that Cunningham so thoughtfully chronicles. And predictably, the account is rife with colorful representations of drunken, vulgar, “blue-collar” types, the types we see so often depicted in mass culture, as the writer notes, “The visuals alone were priceless” Too often this brand of journalism infused with commentary evades cohesive reporting on the complexities of class, and predictably, the account is entirely focused on the visuals, the easy themes and the generalizations. As DeLong reports, “Of course McCain promised he would bring U.S. troops home in victory, not defeat, and thanked the vets for their service, a natural crowd-pleaser for this audience,” although the piece does not include one real interview with any of the attendees.
But other reporters actually got the story right and presented readers with a very different portrayal of the “blue-collar” crowd. In our next entry, we’ll look at some of these accounts and explore the ways in which the basics of journalism education, basics oft forgotten in the service of the sound bite, might just be a way for reporters to more meaningfully cover class in election years and beyond.
Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff