Here’s a report from Zan McQuade, editor of Belt’s Cincinnati Anthology, about the role the local and national media played in the election in Ohio.
BELT: What are your main reactions to the election, from your vantage point in Cincinnati?
Zan McQuade: Hamilton County, Cincinnati’s home county, went blue, as did other large urban areas in Ohio, but the rest of Ohio, as they were predicting, went red. There’s a perception of Cincinnati as being conservative, but I think that’s shifting, and our regional elections were proof of that. The counties immediately surrounding Hamilton County went heavily red, though. There’s a distinct urban/suburban/rural divide, though I think it’s difficult to say if that comes from economics, race, or simple matters of social disconnect and the “bubbles” we’ve created for ourselves.
I wasn’t as surprised as I could have been. I spent the last two hours of election night handing out Democratic slate cards outside the West Chester Library, which is north of Cincinnati, in Butler County, solid Boehner Republican country. I knew I’d encounter many Trump supporters, but what surprised me was the number of women who walked by me hanging their heads to avoid an interaction. This could come from many places — a lot of people around here simply believe that your vote is a personal decision, and didn’t want to say yes or no to my offer of a Dem slate card lest they reveal their vote. It could have been women who were ashamed to be voting for Trump. Or it could come from a place of not wanting to engage with the opposing side. It’s this last option that I fear.
There was a man there handing out Republican slate cards, and we had a very watered down conversation about politics. We managed to agree on a lot, but as I said to him “see, we agree on more than you might imagine,” he countered with “that’s because we’re not talking about anything of substance.” I worry that even when having conversations about things that matter to us within the same community, we’re mostly having entirely different conversations on different levels.
The Rust Belt is not just white people, and we’d do well to continue to remember that in our community and in these conversations about this election.Another significant post-election moment that has become indicative of the mood here: the weekend after the election, we also saw a hung jury in the murder trial of a university police officer, Ray Tensing, who shot a black man, Sam DuBose, during a traffic stop. On the day they called a mistrial, there was an anti-Trump rally scheduled downtown, and as soon as the mistrial was announced, the anti-Trump protest combined with the Black Lives Matter-led Tensing Trial protest as one and marched to Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine, where there were riots less than two decades ago after the police shooting of an unarmed black man. Many estimated that there were upwards of 1,000 people there. People are really connecting the dots here: the Tensing Trial was a really visible post-election reminder of how a Trump presidency — from the issues he stirred up in this election to his recent cabinet and staff appointments — will be felt more significantly in certain communities here than in others. The Rust Belt is not just white people, and we’d do well to continue to remember that in our community and in these conversations about this election.
BELT: What role, if any, are your regional and local media playing in the post-election conversation?
McQuade: Just a few weeks after the election, and it seems to be business as usual as far as our paper is concerned. The last remaining major print paper in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Enquirer, is owned by Gannett, so any national coverage comes whole hog from the USA TODAY Network. Recent shake-ups at the paper have shifted their local directives from investigative journalism to narrative pieces. A top story in the Enquirer’s Politics section recently was about a streetcar accident (the streetcar was the linchpin issue in the last mayoral election and has become a political hot topic in these parts). That said, the narrative shift has led to some really interesting stories, such as their recent three-part story on a Syrian refugee family that settled here in Cincinnati. It was a beautiful piece well-executed by Hannah Sparling, and its tone encouraged deep sympathy. It was the closest we’ve gotten to really talking about the election in local media. This is a very Cincinnati thing to do, I think: we won’t talk directly about the election, but we’ll talk to each other through narrative to help guide people’s awareness of issues that surround issues brought up in the election.
BELT: What role do you think the national media played in your city pre- and post-election?
McQuade: I didn’t see a lot being written specifically about southwestern Ohio, and certainly not a lot being published nationally from local journalists. When journalist Anne Helen Petersen came here to write about a Trump rally for Buzzfeed, she surveyed Twitter for hot-button regional issues to talk to Trump supporters about. I suggested the opioid crisis and jobs, as well as the ongoing Tensing Trial, but I had to emphasize that most of what concerned Trump’s core supporters around here was the same as what was being talked about nationally: healthcare and immigration.
Again, our local paper’s national news comes from a national company that has to write one-size-fits-all journalism that will fit multiple cities. I do think that in this way the national media fed into the sense that the white middle of America was being ignored, which in turn fed Trump’s base. I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that they were being ignored, but I think it was the perception. The issues covered most broadly by the national media (television media in particular) were often issues that affected urban areas. The economy remained the issue people were most concerned about; meanwhile the press covered immigration, and legal issues centering around civil liberties. I have a theory that people might have felt they had to form an opinion on these other issues they were seeing in the media, whether or not it affected them directly. I get the sense that they then felt like the focus on these other issues meant that no one was concerned with their issues.
Not enough local journalists are having work published nationally: this is more important than it might seem to national publications.And to return to the idea that not enough local journalists are having work published nationally: this is more important than it might seem to national publications. There was a post-election piece in the New York Times about Trump’s America, where journalists wrote about Trump supporters in some of the most hotly contested states in this election. Ohio’s was written by Alec MacGillis, who has done a great deal of research on Ohio for ProPublica. His piece on Ohio focused on Richard K. Jones, the controversial anti-immigration Butler County Sheriff who spoke when Trump held his rally here just before the election. It was a good piece, but it was one of only two pieces in the issue written about the states where the author had no connection to the state itself. I welcome outside journalists like MacGillis who commit and dedicate a great deal of their time here, but I hope that local journalists and even expat journalists will continue to have a voice nationally, because I think the local “insider” perspective remains important to interpretation of what’s happening in these regions. Also, for readers and their trust in the media: Cincinnati, in particular, is a city that puts a lot of importance on being from here, and frankly I feel local readers would put a higher value on something being written about them by someone who is from here than someone who is not.
BELT: Going forward, and based on your location, what do you see as priorities for those seeking an independent, alternative and/or oppositional press?
McQuade: There is only one major print newspaper in Cincinnati and it is Gannett owned. There’s an alt weekly, CityBeat, that has the tendency to be more left-leaning and push leftist investigative journalism into Cincinnati politics, but it is not as widely read as the Enquirer. Cincinnati Magazine continues to report on some of the more interesting narrative stories in Cincinnati, but not technically investigative. Regionally there’s been successful journalism happening in online news outlets: WCPO.com (the web outlet for a local TV station), the Cincinnati Business Courier (also owned by a national company, American City Business Journals), the urban development site urbancincy.com, as well as the Cincinnati Herald, Cincinnati’s newspaper for the African-American community. At this point, each of these feels niche and isolated from each other. None of these publications — excepting perhaps some healthy competition for readers between WCPO.com and the Enquirer — feels like it’s competing with any of the others, and I feel that this is putting Cincinnati in a place of becoming complacent with regards to where we get our news and how we seek out different perspectives. I think encouraging healthy competition among them would lead to a lot more interesting and important local journalism.
BELT: Anything else you would like to add as a writer and/or journalist based outside the coasts?
McQuade: I said a lot in the piece I wrote near the publication of The Cincinnati Anthology called “Why Other Cities Matter.” I still believe it’s important for those who live in a city — any city, any town, any country road — to make sure their story is being told, reflecting the voices of people of all walks of life within their communities, and for the rest of us to seek out similarly broad stories from other regions. There is a severe disconnect not only within our communities, but also across state lines, and The United States of America are starting to feel more and more like The Isolated States of America, at the same time creating a bland and dominating narrative over large swaths of people (one-size-fits-all journalism). Publishing and consuming narratives from all walks of life is a vital way to fight our isolation and ensure we’re not reducing our worldview to limited spheres of influence and experience.
Belt asked editors and authors of our books for their views on the media and the election based on their local perspectives. For other pieces in this ongoing series, see Eric Boyd’s view from Pittsburgh, Anna Clark’s argument for supporting journalism, Ted McClelland on the Rust Belt as political and economic bellwether, Mark Athitakis on the export of Rust Belt jobs to the southwest, and more to come.
Let’s keep the Rust Belt well-covered, listen to the voices of those who live here, and spread the word.