I was not born, raised or schooled in the South. And though I've lived in the region for a decade now, I'm still aware of my outsider status. But after spending some time watching the national press on the campaign trail in South Carolina, I swear I can feel the weight of that regional chip on my shoulder.
It's not ignorance of Southern culture or geography that's the main problem. Nobody expects out-of-town reporters to know where the Pee Dee region gets its name (it comes from a river and a Native American tribe), exactly how many manufacturing jobs South Carolina lost last year (18,900) or what body of water Georgetown overlooks (the Sampit River).
What bothered me was that many of the reporters I saw on the campaign bus didn't seem that interested in anything besides being reporters on a campaign bus. Which meant they didn't learn much that was new about the region--or about the campaigns, for that matter.
There were a few out-and-out stereotypical moments, when it was clear that the South is still exotic and scary to many visitors. A reporter for The New York Times showed up to see John Edwards speak at a barbecue place in rural Kingstree dressed in an all-weather jacket that made me wonder whether he thought he'd have to wade through a swamp to get quotes.
And was it my imagination, or did the reporter from The Hartford Courant ignore the two teachers who rose to applaud Edwards' promise to boost public school pay in favor of interviewing some elderly twins with big hair and sparkly sweaters? (We're all so quaint down here).
At least that reporter was talking to folks. At Howard Dean's appearance at a breakfast in Florence, journalists from the big national papers and CNN were content to sit in a roped-off square at the back, far from the conversations that were swirling all around them. The reporter from the Charlotte Observer had the right idea. He ignored the directions of campaign aides and plunked himself down at one of the tables with a plate of eggs and grits.
It's clear there is a pecking order among the campaign-covering press. On the Dean bus, aides and supporters were chummy with the writers from the big papers and broadcast stations, ignoring the rest of us. "How many readers do you have in South Carolina?" an aide pointedly asked the guy from the Charlotte Observer. (He never did get his moment alone with Dean).
The fascination with all things Southern continued, in its superficial way. Dean's press secretary was teased about the huge roaches that had apparently been spotted in the hotel reserved for the press, and quizzed about the charms of coastal Charleston. Nobody bothered to look out the window, where the view fairly screamed, "It's the Economy, Stupid!" as the bus wound through the heart of the depressed Pee Dee region. A good, long look at the landscape, as it moved from farmland to Wal-Mart strip to closed-up businesses would have been ample background for any story.
In Georgetown, the Dean rally was fairly crawling with members of the media. But most of them stood atop a platform, watching things from a distance. Some of the reports they generated seemed distant, too. A write-up of the event in The Washington Post insisted that Dean had adopted a Southern accent for the day in an attempt to blend in. The source of this information? "A few members of the traveling press"--in other words, other reporters on the bus.
No doubt, covering political campaigns is a challenging, exhausting tour of duty. (Think Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.) Like reporters who were "embedded" with troops in Iraq, the "traveling press" views campaigns through a necessarily narrow vantage point.
Maybe there should be rotating tours, or other ways to avoid combat fatigue on these assignments. Otherwise, what citizens learn about the campaigns is all too often limited by what reporters on the bus miss, or convince each other is true--or by what gets left on the editing floor.
I watched a reporter from CNN ask tough, insightful questions about Dean's "Southern strategy" during his stop in Florence. But the snippet broadcast that night had only this to say: "Democrats are going South for the winter and trying to woo voters with a little southern charm."