Presidential candidate Barack Obama has been under fire for suggesting that rural Americans are bitter. I've got Obama beat. I pissed off an entire rural county and caused some of the bitterness Obama just talks about. In fact, the local paper there reported that some folks would like to give me a Deliverance-style welcome next time I'm in town.
Let's back up for a minute. Last fall, I did a story for Crosscut on Garfield County, one of Washington state's poorest and least populous. It is the only county in the state, in fact, that is losing population. Driving though Garfield's county seat, Pomeroy, I wondered why the place seemed so distressed compared with other towns in southeast Washington. The Walla Walla miracle seems to extend to places like Waitsburg and Dayton, but it runs out of gas on the highway to Pomeroy. My intention wasn't to pick on Pomeroy, which is a charming if somewhat scruffy old-school farm town with a lovely county courthouse. I wanted to understand what the potential was for the rural economy. Could Garfield County, home to controversial Snake River dams, be rejuvenated by saving salmon or growing gourmet crops? It's a topic I explored in stories on Walla Walla and salmon.
The very questions I was asking put Pomeroy and Garfield County at a disadvantage. My premise was that the place looked like a glass half-empty, not half-full. But in my research, I discovered that others, too, were asking these questions. The piece I did was hardly investigative journalism — contrary to the claim of a woman I interviewed in Pomeroy, I did not proclaim that I was doing an "expose" on the place. I don't know any journalist who actually uses that word, and if I had been doing an expose, I wouldn't have announced it. The facts and figures I reported came from public sources, including an economic development report I was handed while I passed through town.
So from my perspective, I was doing basic journalism — albeit drive-by journalism. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that people shot back. But I was startled by the anger and "betrayal" some felt. Alesia Ruchert, managing director of the Palouse Economic Development Council in Pomeroy, wrote to the local paper, the East Washingtonian, to clarify her role in "the Knute Berger scandal." She was taking heat because I had interviewed and quoted her in the story. She described her reaction to my piece as "heartache" and accused me of taking her comments out of context. She apologized to the whole community for cooperating with me and seemed to rue the day I showed up unannounced on her doorstep.
In my view, I did nothing wrong. I felt bad that she was taking any blame for my story. She did her job professionally, providing a journalist with facts, insight, and additional resources. She also struck me as someone who cared deeply about her community. I was also surprised that she and many of her neighbors read my piece as an attack on their way of life. Ruchert wrote me, "You made us sound like a bunch of uneducated hicks living in a barren wasteland." In return, she painted me as The Creature of the Blogosphere who came from the big city to attack the ways of rural folk:
... I will not again be a source for a piece that serves no purpose but to criticize, belittle, and place judgment upon our community based on the mores of a sub-culture that is all but foreign to the hard-working, family-oriented, responsible, well-adjusted real people of Garfield County.
I thought her critique was interesting for its own mistaken assumptions, that a blogger from Seattle has by definition questionable mores, isn't hard-working, family oriented, well adjusted, or responsible. OK, I'll admit to some moral failings and maladjustment — I'm a columnist — but her indictment strikes me as the flipside of Obama's "elitism," which is rural self-righteousness. News flash: City people aren't saints and neither are the hardy crofters of the Palouse. Her aggrieved tone and moral outrage, however, leads me to believe that she might have a future as a blogger.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!