Should we scoff at HuffPost’s Safari to Middle America?

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Not on the face of it, no. With the national news media missing out on the dynamics of middle-American populism, critics have challenged them to pay more attention to voters outside of the Acela media bubble and the urban enclaves. CNN responded by hiring Salena Zito as a contributor after her singular focus on Rust Belt disaffection and frustration got missed until it was too late for others to catch up.

If HuffPost’s editors want to spend some time traveling those same roads in order to learn something about life outside the bubbles in order to improve their reporting, then that can’t be a bad idea. But the report from Politico’s Hadas Gold casts doubt on that intent, and suggests this may be a safari of sorts rather than an engagement:

Having made its name as a home for liberals and the blog posts of coastal elites, the recently renamed HuffPost is seeking to reinforce its new, less partisan image with a seven-week bus tour through Middle America to “listen and learn what it means to be American today,” the site will announce on Thursday.

Starting in September, a traveling party of rotating HuffPost staff members led by editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen will visit more than 20 cities, eschewing the coasts for the likes of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Oxford, Mississippi and Odessa, Texas. At each city, the site will host events, roll out planned stories with local media outlets, send out reporters to write about the communities and collect stories from residents “in their own words.”

So far so good, right? Maaaybeee. Right now, it looks like the buses will pull over mainly in Hillary Country:

Though many of the cities the group is visiting voted for Hillary Clinton in last year’s election, all but two of the states went to Trump. But Polgreen says they’re not visiting “Trump country,” pointing to a reason for each city or state on the tour like an interesting community college system in Fort Wayne or Detroit’s large Arab-American population.

That doesn’t look like an effort at establishing a less-partisan-progressive image as much as it looks like reinforcement of its existing identity. They aren’t going places that challenge their partisanship as much as it might challenge their expression of it. (Even that seems pretty doubtful if they’re focusing on demographics that overwhelmingly favor Democrats.) Their purpose in doing so seems more inward focused than outward, too:

“This would be identity defining for HuffPost,” said Polgreen in an interview. “We are in a moment for [determining] our own identity and the role we play in the overall news ecosystem and what the next iteration of that looks like. And this felt like a great way to go out and … report out the story of who we should be in the world.”

Er … shouldn’t the purpose of an exercise like this be to report out who others are in the world? “Listening tours” tend to be more about the listener than the speakers anyway, especially in a political context, but it’s rare that it becomes the explicit mission.

Gold says the cost of this seven-week tour could run as high as a million dollars, which might make it a good public-relations effort, but hardly an efficient use of resources to better understand middle America. (HuffPost disputes the cost estimate, Gold notes.) One could hire a few good reporters for a million dollars, especially local reporters in places outside the progressive media bubble who understand those communities and can report on them without condescension, and especially without turning the whole thing into an anthropological exercise. “Here are middle Americans in their native habitat, performing their strange and inexplicable rituals like square dancing and hunting for meat …”

Done properly, that kind of investment and effort can pay off. Salena Zito proved that over the last few years. I did something similar with my book, Going Red, by traveling specifically to counties that Barack Obama won to discover what Republicans had missed. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, but at least from Gold’s report, HuffPost’s execution may leave a lot to be desired.

Invitation accepted.
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