How to Write Terrible Trump Era Journalism

22 Jun

There is a lot of terrible journalism out there, and normally I don’t bother my time with it. Ana Marie Cox of Rolling Stone, however, made the mistake of writing a piece of terrible journalism about Duluth, and will thus endure the full wrath of this blog. I know nothing of Ms. Cox’s work; who knows what she was directed to do by editors or higher-ups, or what wound up on the cutting room floor, or if she just had a bad day. I write, so I get it. The rest of her work may be sterling. But she has produced a remarkably lazy and awful piece, and while Mayor Emily Larson has already offered a much politer response than mine, City Pages responded with its usual elegance of a drunken elephant, and Perfect Duluth Day has devised a brilliant creative writing contest around it, it deserves to be dissected, line by line. Some opportunities are just too golden to miss.

The original article is in bold; my comments are in normal text.

Minnesota’s lonely island of electoral blue in the midst of Donald Trump’s upper Midwest Republican bloodbath was on the minds of nearly everyone inside Duluth’s Amsoil Arena Wednesday night. Every speaker, including President Trump, referred to it, though perhaps no one quite as dramatically as state GOP chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who warned the thousands in attendance about a “red tsunami rolling across Lake Superior.” (Just add it to the list of greasy Wisconsin imports, I guess.) 

Most of the eastern end of Lake Superior is Canada, which has interesting implications for both Ms. Carnahan’s claim and Ms. Cox’s witty repartee, but let’s not quibble with that stuff.

Trump does not tend to visit states he cannot in some way claim as his – blue states that fail to jibe with his hoary recitation of Election Night. If you’re wondering why the president came to Minnesota anyway, that’s because Trump did come within just a couple percentage points of taking the state. (He told the crowd this, of course.) If you’re wondering why Trump came to Duluth, that’s because Duluth is a reverse oasis in a place known for its natural beauty, good health outcomes, relatively low crime and high standard of living. Like the more prosperous areas of Minnesota, Duluth is strikingly white. Look deeper than skin and you’ll find Duluth is a struggling post-manufacturing cipher with the highest drug overdose rate in the state. U.S. Steel closed its gigantic Morgan Park plant in 1981, causing a slow cascade of desolation that stilled the concrete and hardboard plants and emptied out the grain elevators.

I wonder if Ms. Cox was time-warped to 1984 while on her visit. Duluth has certainly been to hell and back over the past few decades, and the opioid epidemic is real. I also understand how someone who drives in on I-35 from Minneapolis, winds past the paper mill and the port area, and stops only at Amsoil for a Trump rally before heading back south could come to this sort of conclusion. (Knock down some big retaining walls and put up a hill to block the view of downtown, and someone driving into Minneapolis from the west on I-94 would probably conclude the same thing.) An effort to attack these problems is no small part of why I chose to move back to Duluth and try to do some good. But, as I’ve noted elsewhere when discussing Decline Porn, Duluth is in many ways an exceptional Rust Belt city for the road it has traveled since the depths of the 80s. Some of this is probably just due to dumb luck and accidents of history, but it’s reality.

A few other blown details: as far as steel mills go, the Morgan Park operation was not large. Grain shipping trends have approximately nothing to do with the loss of the steel plant, and the regional wood products industry does only insofar as it fits into a concurrent rush of deindustrialization. Correlation is not causation.

Today, the small city of 80,000 scrapes by on tourism and as a port. There’s a paper plant that has been on the verge of closing for 10 years. Duluth has a poverty rate (21 percent) that would rank it among the most desperate counties in West Virginia and per capita income just below that of Wheeling.

This is a great example of bad use of statistics. Minneapolis (where Ms. Cox lives) and St. Paul both have poverty rates that are a tiny bit higher than Duluth. Other semi-comparable regional centers such as Mankato and St. Cloud have even higher poverty rates. If one knows anything about how urban development works, this is not a remotely surprising statistic, and comparing cities (instead of, say, metro areas) is pretty disingenuous. This is perhaps even more true for income statistics, which, if viewed in proper context, will show that Duluth is perhaps slightly below the average for other small Midwestern regional centers, nestling just below much faster-growing places like St. Cloud and Fargo, but hardly destitute.

Oh, crap. With this next paragraph, we have to go sentence by sentence.

Lake Superior’s merciless beauty crashes up against a town whose shoreside skyline is dominated by stolid, brutalist mid-century relics and precarious-seeming industrial shipping contraptions, rusty and mostly silent.

This amateur architecture student is very curious to learn where these examples of brutalist architecture are in Duluth. The Holiday Center, there’s one, sure. A few buildings on the UMD campus? Maybe the Radisson, though I’d say that’s more modernist inflected. The vast majority of the buildings in downtown and along the waterfront long predate brutalism as an architectural trend, and our handful of later-stage office buildings are fairly tame. Otherwise, yeah, grain elevators do in fact look like grain elevators. Ore docks are ore docks no matter where they are, and Duluth’s are pretty busy these days, with the exception of the one that’s under consideration for some pretty fun ideas.

But, if you want a catchphrase for how liberal America has completely lost any sense of what people in the working class actually do with their lives, “industrial shipping contraptions” does a pretty good job of capturing it. How lazy can you get?

Downtown, every surface is covered with a thin layer of grime.

Every day when I walk out of my office downtown, I brush off a layer of grime off of myself and wonder why I live here.

It is, in other words, potential Trump Country.

This is already a revision on Ms. Cox’s behalf: she added the word “potential” after a few people pointed out that Duluth went 2-to-1 for Clinton in 2016. However, even the revised version is bizarre and difficult to defend. Census estimates show Duluth has grown somewhat more diverse and somewhat younger in recent years, neither of which would predict a drift toward Trumpism. If anything, city politics have taken a noticeable left turn over the past few years. What exactly about this city makes it potential Trump country, then? The simple fact of whiteness? The fact that it has some things in common with other cities in other states that broke for Trump?

But, if you bother to look closely, places like Flint and Youngstown and Scranton remain strikingly blue on election maps. Rust Belt cities themselves did not carry Trump to victory in Ohio or Michigan or Pennsylvania. The suburbs to which some of their former residents fled, on the other hand, are a different story, and deeply rural areas another story still. Duluth has not experienced much suburbanization (see the decline porn piece linked to above), so that’s perhaps of interest; maybe there’s a good article that could be written about Hermantown, the suburban home of the Republican candidate in this year’s eighth congressional district race. Or maybe not; I believe Hermantown still went for Clinton by a pretty solid margin. But that might, at least, be worth exploring. Instead, we get a lazy narrative that is also flat-out wrong pretty much everywhere.

“I can’t believe he’s here in DULUTH,” one woman at the rally told me. When I asked another if she’d been to any other rallies, she thought for a moment and said, “Reagan. When I was little.” Another gentleman told me he’d seen Bush.

Um, okay. Why are these people’s past presidential sightings relevant?

Unlike other parts of official Trump Country, Duluth hasn’t received the disproportionate attention that comes with strategic electoral or even symbolic import.

Does this mean we’re a part of “Official Trump country?” Woohoo! That said, Minnesota’s eighth congressional district has gotten a fair amount of play in national media for its role as a swing district. The parties sure noticed too, given that it was the most expensive congressional race in the country in 2016. Its result also bucked the narrative Ms. Cox is trying to write, at least temporarily.

There haven’t been any deep dives into the local psyche by national reporters and it is far afield of any normal campaign trail.

As Mayor Larson noted, the Fallowses with CBS and Outside magazine have weighed in on the local psyche. I’m not saying they’re dead-on, but the claim as made here is untrue. Maybe there haven’t been any political exposés because…Duluth’s politics are pretty much unchanged? And because, only now that Trump has brought it to their attention, the national media is starting to recognize that Minnesota has a serious chance to flip to the GOP column in 2020? (I don’t totally blame the media for that; Clinton’s narrow escape here in 2016 wasn’t exactly the headline on election night.)

The next few paragraphs aren’t really about Duluth, so they don’t get my hackles up. Instead, they are standard fare of liberal reporting in the Trump era, in which our brave correspondent ventures in among the unwashed Trump masses to report back to the liberal denizens of metropolitan areas who are safe from contact with such mysterious people. Nothing we haven’t heard or seen before, but certainly not horrible journalism by any stretch. Moving on:

[The crowd] knew their [sic] lines: “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”and “CNN sucks!” all rang out at the appropriate cues. When Trump indicated a pause for laughter – it’s hard to describe anything he says as a “joke” – they delivered the syllables with disciplined crispness, like we were on the set of a studio in Burbank and not in a musty arena named for a small-time lubricant manufacturer. Then again, there’s the Amsoil slogan: “First in synthetics.” 

A moment ago, Ms. Cox said the attendees “weren’t even especially practiced Trump supporters.” Now they are well-trained actors. Which is it?

Also, Amsoil Arena opened in 2011, and has typically been lauded as one of the nicer college hockey arenas in the country. (If we’re really measuring, these people even call it #1; I can’t attest to many out east, but I’d agree it’s equal to or better than most of the other Midwestern ones that inhabit the top of the list.) Amsoil pays homage to Duluth’s industrial past through an intentionally industrial feel with the exposed concrete blocks, but any mustiness is an awfully new development.

And Amsoil the company, for what it’s worth, is doing well, and provides over 300 fairly good jobs to people in the Duluth area. It’s the sort of enterprise we should celebrate if we want to see small cities succeed. But of course if Trump sets foot in an arena it sponsors, it’s important that a national audience’s exposure to it come through a quick potshot.

By the time Trump reached the end of his speech, it felt familiar even if you hadn’t heard it before. The phrases had the too-neat, predictable parallelism of a jingle: “We will never give in, we will never give up … we will never stop fighting for our flag, or our freedom. We are one people, and one family, and one nation under God.” The last lines were chanted out in half-unison, half-hum, the way you might mumble-vamp through the verse of “Sweet Caroline” only to land with ecstasy at the chorus: “We will make America safe AGAIN! We will make America strong AGAIN! We will make America GREAT AGAIN!”

That’s the way the end of democracy sounds, I think: People so eager to join a chant they do it before they know all the words.

I award a few points for poignancy here, though the actual words quoted sound like something any president ever has always said when firing up a crowd at the end of a speech.

There is a domestic violence center in the shadow of the Amsoil arena. When I stopped in on the afternoon of the rally, a mildly harried woman manning the desk behind the bulletproof glass did not need to tell me they were busy. A string of women were buzzed in and out the security doors in the 15 minutes I visited. Someone was picking up a set of dishes. Another wanted to know about the free dental clinic. Someone asked if her advocate was in – she needed to know if the restraining order had come through. The woman who worked there told me the beds at the center were always full and they get 12-to-14 referrals a night. 

This seemed impossibly high for such a town not much bigger than the Twin Cities suburb of Bloomington, but I checked the city’s crime statistics – an imperfect measure, since referrals don’t necessarily come from the police or involve an arrest. But still: In 2016 in Duluth, there were over 900 arrests for what Minnesota terms “violence against families/children.” There were 84 such arrests in Bloomington.

I asked the woman at the center what she thought of the scene at the border. Did she think it was fair to be paying so much attention to that, given what she was dealing with? Did she think what Trump was doing to those families was abuse? 

She looked at me gravely: “Trauma is trauma.”

Ms. Cox also made a correction to this part of the piece to fix another earlier error. But aside from how pedantic we could be about “being in the shadow” of an arena that is across a several parking lots, a freeway, and most of downtown from the location described, this is actually the hint of a good article. The facts about domestic violence are jarring and real, and she gives a bit of nuance to her crime statistics, though they are still crappy. (Don’t compare suburbs to central cities, please.) Juxtaposing a festive political rally with nearby trauma can be compelling. Weighing concern for people thousands of miles away against forgotten people just down the street is an interesting philosophical question. There are the makings of a very good piece here.

Unfortunately, that good piece is not the one Ms. Cox wrote. Instead, it is a cheap shot at a city that gets so much of its context so fundamentally wrong that no number of little edits here and there could possibly rescue it. It is exactly the sort of thing that a Trump supporter can hold up to show how out of touch those Metro Elites are from the places they breeze through and attempt to describe. I doubt Ms. Cox intended to do that, but the fact that it came off this way just shows how out of touch she was when she wrote it. It is emblematic of many of this country’s divides, and only reinforces them.  It is a shame it was published.

If Ms. Cox ever returns to Duluth, I’d be happy to give her a tour that includes equal parts decline porn and rebirth, and all of the murky ground in between. I hope that, then, she could write something more attuned to reality. In the meantime, I’m going to head out on to my porch and have a beer on a perfectly air-conditioned Duluth evening, and maybe wander down to the lake while I’m at it.

After I wipe the grime off my chair, of course.

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One Response to “How to Write Terrible Trump Era Journalism”

  1. Maureen Maloney June 23, 2018 at 7:10 am #

    I was eagerly awaiting your response to Cox’s jaw-dropping assessment. Well done!

    Love,

    Mom

    On Fri, Jun 22, 2018 at 7:27 PM, A Patient Cycle wrote:

    > karlschuettler posted: “There is a lot of terrible journalism out there, > and normally I don’t bother my time with it. Ana Marie Cox of Rolling > Stone, however, made the mistake of writing a piece of terrible journalism > about Duluth, and will thus endure the full wrath of this blo” >

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