Republican-led counties and states have been facing uproar from Democratic constituents all across the USA since the election of Donald Trump, and it’s given politicians and newspapers alike a lot to scramble and cover. Since the massive national protests and the well-covered police escort of California Representative Tom McClintock (R) out of a Roseville town hall meeting in February, perceptions about the Indivisible/Resist movement’s relevancy, momentum, potential threat to civility, and representation of the Democratic Party have given no shortage of headlines.
Coeur d’Alene seems to be no exception to this ongoing narrative. Local Indivisible groups hosting a Tax Day town hall and march to protest multiple issues regarding President Donald Trump received a turnout of 300+ on April 16. The Coeur d’Alene Press’ Steve Cameron reported on this, beginning his story with the sentence, “Perhaps Democrats aren’t really an extinct species in North Idaho.” Notably, democrats are a minority in Idaho.
Given this context, and that political institution is in an unusual state at the moment (an “upset,” as major outlets almost unanimously referred to President Trump’s win) it is perhaps forgivable to suggest that when audience members took to a standing applaud only at two moments during Representative Raul Labrador’s Coeur d’Alene town hall meeting at Lake City on March 5th, those moments represented the concerns and stances of town hall attendees.
Given this context, it is also perhaps forgivable to ask why an exception is indeed being made in Coeur d’Alene as to how local reporting tells this narrative.
There is no intention here to deliver a blithe and self-assured criticism of the Spokesman Review, KREM 2, or the Coeur d’Alene Press (though I will be targeting CDA Press, I feel it’s a fair critique); I know nothing of their staffing situations, guidelines on allowing writers to inject political analysis, or whether they’d prefer letters to the editor to better represent where concerned citizens’ voices sit.
I only intend to state that none of those three things would seem to come into play if the intention was to cover the event. If a reader was not there, what did they miss? Town hall meetings have established themselves in history as a necessary form of political communication, and if journalism’s aim is to objectively cover an event, would it not logically follow that it should document all pertinent political communication: namely, that done by the audience whose expected presence is the basis for the event? Exclusion of these ideological moments of discourse, it seems to me, serves to take part in what is expected to be only an observed sociological documentation by providing a narrative that isn’t full to people seeking to give it a narrative.
One of those key moments was of relative high drama. A question posed by audience member Rebecca Schroeder was likely the most notable, and while KREM 2 and the Spokesmanhttp://www.spokesman.com/stories/2017/may/05/health-care-dominates-at-highly-charged-coeur-dale/ Review both bring attention to her, neither note her position as National Advocacy Co-Chair for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the fact that her question received the largest standing audience of the night, the relationship which she and Labrador had already established and the appeals they made to each other personally, with Schroeder accusing Labrador of lacking compassion and being a liar, and Labrador saying he no longer looks forward to meeting with her. The story says:
“Coeur d’Alene resident Rebecca Schroeder, the mother of a 9-year-old with cystic fibrosis, handed out photocopied sheets of statements by organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Cancer Society, all of which condemned the Republican bill. At the microphone, she accused Labrador of pushing a bill that would restrict her son’s access to lifesaving medications.
“Are you asking us to disregard the voices of patients and health care professionals?” Schroeder asked.
“You and I disagree on this,” Labrador said, after several members of the audience stood and applauded Schroeder’s comments. “I told you that I wanted to protect people like your son, while also protecting the 93 percent of Americans that have been harmed by Obamacare.”
They may have done this for the sake of brevity, opting to quote her to represent the health care concerns that defined the night, rather than the partisan concerns of the audience or the moment’s unexpected move away from the predictably repetitive and perhaps sometimes uninteresting Q&A. KREM 2 only showed a portion of Schroeder’s question without interest in the above details.
The second moment was prompted by another person, Teuvo Orjala, who was also mentioned in the Spokesman’s article. The article also fails to mention his position as a founder of a local Indivisible group, instead referring to him as an ally, and also excludes that Labrador’s response incited standing applause from within the audience, there has been local contention over Indivisible, or Labrador’s most direct answer to a question about faith: “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give unto god that which is god’s.” The Spokesman reports,
“Labrador repeated several times during the town hall that the benefits of the Affordable Care Act go to a small portion of the population, while the majority is left with rising premiums. The congressman reiterated to several attendees, including 34-year-old Teuvo Orjala, that health care was not a right protected in the U.S. Constitution, and therefore lawmakers were under no legal obligation to provide it.
“I do think we have a responsibility, not a Constitutional right, but a responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves,” Labrador said.
Orjala, who is allied with the Indivisible Idaho movement that opposes the agenda of President Donald Trump, asked Labrador how that position reconciled with his Christian faith, which the lawmaker has been vocal about in his public life.
Labrador said he grew up poor, and when his family needed something, “we didn’t go to the government. We went to the church, and the church provided the things that we needed for a month or two.”
Orjala said after the town hall he was disappointed with Labrador’s answer.
“I was hoping for a heartfelt answer, and I felt like I kind of got a canned answer,” he said.
Perhaps I am adding bias by thinking something that could be noteworthy to interested parties should be noted. The way I’ve always looked at it is how I mentioned above: if a reader wasn’t there, what did they miss? In this regard I don’t heavily criticize the Spokesman and KXLY, they obviously made an effort toward the audience. These two organizations are Spokane-based.
The Coeur d’Alene Press, on the other hand, evidently has a focus on Coeur d’Alene. They have assigned reporter Steve Cameron to cover town halls it seems, and in his coverage of the event, he declared that there were two lessons from the event. One was that, “local Democrats and progressives have gotten wiser in less than a week,” referring to a story written by himself on May 1 portraying “anti-trump” attendees of a District 4 town hall meeting at North Idaho College as screaming and a threat to property (neither of which attendees, of which I was one, can reasonably confirm). This story prompted uproarious debate in the comments section (one comment was made by me as well) and calls to the CDA Press office; the story was changed to say “opinion by” instead of “written by,” and Cameron issued an apology for allowing bias to slip into his story.
One could argue that “local democrats and progressives” only got wiser due the fact that the paper personally submitted an article that portrayed them as insane and threatening. I would disagree with that, but it’s hard to disprove since the writer interjected his stances into the ongoing narrative. Which I find not to be too harsh of a declaration to make when the second lesson Cameron reports from the event is that:
“You simply cannot trap a politician with a “Gotcha!” question, as U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, proved again and again, dancing easily around anything that might have put him in a difficult position.”
This story goes on to praise Labrador’s performance, referring to his answers as soft-shoe worthy, dance moves, never veering toward being impolite, and then concludes:
Even Labrador’s critics, however, probably didn’t give him a failing grade for Friday night’s performance.
Don Rumpel, a businessman from Kellogg, perhaps summed it up.
“He seems like a pretty nice guy, whatever you think,” Rumpel said.
Green cards for that, surely.
I feel as if the CDA Press might be forgiving this activity due to its benefit of providing a more entertainment-oriented approach. But political events, especially ones that might be contentious, aren’t usually put in the Features section for creative writers to toy around with. And at even that task, Cameron seems to fail. Instead of simply being entertaining, Cameron seems only inches away from endorsing Labrador, whom everyone at the time of the story’s writing suspected would run for governor. And he did, very shortly afterward.
If these were the lessons learned, I think it’s fair to say that Cameron is telling a self-fulfilling prophecy. To attach the narrative of a group expressly to whether it behaved in a calm manner, and to exaggerate how badly they behaved to the extent that his District 4 town hall story did, makes his apology letter for that story sound very inauthentic given that he followed it with a story praising Labrador for his good behavior and linked a “lesson” to be learned from the event to a separate event which he covered in a way that incited an apology. The apology itself goes to hopefully evidence what I’m accusing Cameron of, with a headline of “DEMOCRATS WANT RUDE BEHAVIOR HALTED NOW,” wherein he quotes Kootenai County Democratic Chair Paula Neils as saying that she wants discourse to be civil. This hardly seems the place to admit to the mistake he made and admit to his “journalistic sin,” as he admitted it under what is… a story. A story about Paula Neils’ appeal to civil discourse, which the writer turned into his own. The story concludes:
I can tell you without hesitation that I learned my own lesson about becoming inflamed — and not by issues, but by behavior.
So can we stop all the nonsense?
My point isn’t that he’s merely an inflamed journalist; I would say that he’s a biased writer. It’s nothing against him, nor am I saying that he’s particularly allied to any party. Nor am I saying this from a slanted perspective, I believe; while I’m not opposed to the Indivisible movement (I am acquainted with members of it) and align myself to Democrats in general, I land on different sides of the political equation on many issues and make great efforts to straddle the line between parties. There are stances I hold that I’m certain Indivisible members would disagree with. I’m saying that the story Cameron is telling excludes objective coverage of the event, and instead tells his own narrative of it. Given that partisan tensions are very high in our nation and that Spokane seems to cover our stories with brevity, it seems journalistically dangerous that our local political coverage has made such a clear distinction about what is right or wrong behavior, and then clearly splits our parties among those lines.
Despite what he said about the Labrador town hall, there weren’t any lessons to be learned from it. If there were, it isn’t up to a reporter to instill those lessons but to provide the facts from which people can derive those lessons.
Needless to say, Cameron’s story didn’t mention Rebecca Schroeder or Teuvo Orjala.