By Martha Bayne
On Saturday, January 21, the New York Times deployed a dozen reporters far and wide to report on the women’s marches happening across the country.
“In Trump’s Hometown, A Clear Message of Defiance From Women,” rang the headline from New York City.
“Marchers Pour Into Washington to Pour out Their Hearts,” read the piece datelined D.C.
And then there was this: “In a Rust Belt Town, The Women’s March Draws Shrugs and Cheers From Afar.”
Reporting from Niles, Michigan, Chicago-based Julie Bosman was nine paragraphs into her story before she found a resident supporting – or even cognizant of – the marches taking over Washington and elsewhere, citing the approval of 79-year-old Lucy VandenHeede, whose daughter-in-law and two granddaughters had taken a bus from Kalamazoo to attend the march.
Before then, the expressed sentiments of the women of Niles, population 11,600, echoed, line after line, those of 31-year-old Jennifer Purucker. “Never heard of it,” she told Bosman. The writer made that the lead for a piece painting the picture of a depressed Michigan town more excited by the local ice festival than politics or protest.
This didn’t sit well with Deborah Stevens, 50, a personal chef who moved to Niles from Ann Arbor in 2012.
“Dear Ms. Bosman,” she wrote Sunday to the reporter. “I am writing to object to your coverage of Niles, Michigan’s response to the Women’s March … By visiting and conducting your interviews on Saturday, you effectively limited your sample to those not participating. Why?”
She went on to point out the many marches in the surrounding communities within easy driving distance, and the city’s own charter bus trip to DC, which was covered in the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Herald-Palladium under the headline “Fired Up and Ready To Go.”
“I feel like the New York Times did a real disservice to our town and our region by characterizing us as uninformed bumpkins. It doesn’t help.”
“A lot of the division in our country is caused by disrespect between more urban elite areas and more rural, seemingly unsophisticated “Rust Belt” areas,” says Stevens. “I feel like the New York Times did a real disservice to our town and our region by characterizing us as uninformed bumpkins. It doesn’t help.”
“Southwest Michigan is conservative,” says Doris Higgins, 53, who organized the bus trip and works for a health-care advocacy organization in Indiana. “But like all communities Niles is a mix of values and views.”
“I grew up in a working-class, union family,” she adds. “Seeing all these union families that voted for Trump is just blowing my mind. … There’s a lot of education that needs to be done.”
Donald Trump won southwest Berrien County — which stretches from the Michiana border north past the county seat in lakefront St. Joseph’s and has a population of 156, 813 — with 38,647 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 29,495. That’s a ratio (and a voter turnout) that roughly mirrors that of the state as a whole, though skewing slightly higher to Trump. Fair enough.
Like much of the region, Niles once had a more robust economy. Tyler Refrigeration shut down in 2009, and the Packard office furniture and Simplicity factories have closed as well; those tissue paper sewing patterns are now made in Mexico. The biggest employers in town are probably Lakeland Hospital, and the auto parts manufacturer Modineer.
Niles is 82% white, with a median household income of $31,208; men, on average, make almost $10,000 more per year than women. Unemployment hovers around 4.4 percent. But it’s farther to Detroit or Indianapolis than it is to Chicago, which is 90 minutes away by car or Amtrak. In fact, much of Berrien County – the coastal part, along Lake Michigan’s southeast shore – is home to the summer retreats of Chicagoans with even modest disposable income, and they’re slowly creeping inland as lakefront real estate becomes cost prohibitive.
Arts educator and former Chicagoan Penny Duff, 37, and her husband built a house in Galien, Mich., 17 miles west of Niles, over the last 18 months, and moved in last fall. As a relative newcomer she’s reluctant to speak for the region, but she was a little cheesed off as well.
“I have never thought of Niles as a Rust Belt town,” she wrote on Facebook. “Among other things there’s a pretty robust manufacturing economy in this particular part of the Michigan-Indiana border. Those jobs may not be in Niles per se, but that’s not necessarily where people who live there work.”
Plus, she added, “there was a march in South Bend a mere 10 miles away! WHY WASN’T THAT MENTIONED IN THE ARTICLE?!”
When Deborah Stevens made the same point in her email to Julie Bosman, Bosman responded with the note that her assignment was specifically to report from a town that didn’t have its own march, and “to answer the question: what about the people who stayed home?”
Women marched in Lansing, and in Kalamazoo, and in the Rust Belt’s favorite daughter, Detroit. Not to mention the more than 1,000 people who turned out in South Bend.
But that response is disingenuous at best. The Times’s package included scenes from reporters on the ground in Boston, Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta, Key West, Fla., St. Paul, Los Angeles, and, of course, New York and D.C. But you’d never know the march in Cleveland drew 15,000 people; that one in Pittsburgh had a crowd of 25,000. Women marched in Lansing, and in Kalamazoo, and in the Rust Belt’s favorite daughter, Detroit. Not to mention the more than 1,000 people who turned out in South Bend.
“I thought she was less than transparent in what the goal of her article was,” says Stevens. “And I think that she really cherry picked. By arriving on Saturday she limited herself to people with no interest in the march or no ability to go.
“She said she was trying to provide a wide spectrum of ideas,” continues Stevens, “but she led off with people who were not aware of the march and I think a lot of people don’t read past the first few paragraphs, so it gives the impression that people in Niles are unaware of what’s going on or don’t read the newspaper.”
Sure, she says, there are people in Niles for whom the march was just not on their radar. And yes, it’s unfortunately undeniable that southwest Michigan went for Trump. But, Stevens points out, “There are many here who feel passionately about women’s rights and have great concern for how women will fare under our new president and are putting their time and money where their mouth is.”
“All these ugly things have reared their head and it’s not OK, and we just can’t stand idly by. It’s not OK to normalize it.” says Higgins, who until now hasn’t been terribly politically active. “As a white, middle-class woman it’s easy for me to live in my little bubble, and say, yes, Black Lives Matter, and not change what I do in my life every day. This has been a wake-up call to me that I as an individual need to show up for democracy to work.”
It’s a fun parlor game these days to throw darts at journalists, but in this instance the packaging tells the story. One Michigan town, described with selective, if accurate, facts by a reporter with an opaque mandate, can’t stand in for the whole of the Rust Belt. By focusing its sole story coming out of the middle of the country on those who didn’t care, didn’t know, or stayed behind, the Times reinforces the “silo-ing” effect Higgins and others argue is only further isolating Rust Belt voters. It’s an effect she hopes the marches can begin to change.
“We had a young woman, a student, on the bus who had never been out of Grand Rapids further than Chicago,” Higgins points out. “For her to get on the bus and participate in this, I think it will be a grounding and a foundation for her to be engaged in issues. She sought out this opportunity, and it’s going to change how she sees things.”
“My biggest beef is this stereotypical treatment of my town,” says Stevens. “We are much more diverse than the New York Times made it sound.”
She points to the ice festival that happened the weekend of the march, as an example of Niles at its best. “People work hard to make it happen and turn out in force from all over the place and support our local restaurants. It’s a great reflection of a try-hard, vibrant community working with what we have and not just condemning ourselves to Rust Belt decay. There would have been a great story there.”
Martha Bayne is Belt’s senior editor.