My Wisconsin Relatives Might Say You Big City Journalists Are the Ones Who Don’t Get It

It snowed in Washington today with some ice on the sidewalks so when I got ready to go outside this morning to pick up the Washington Post I worried about slipping and falling. When I opened the front door, I found that a neighbor dog-walker had picked up the Post that the delivery truck had tossed out on the lawn and put it inside our storm door so I didn’t have to go outside.

The virtue of living in a real neighborhood.

I grew up in Appleton, a small Wisconsin city where we all lived in real neighborhoods. Many of our neighbors had been in the same part of town most their lives; we knew a lot about each other and we all pretty much got along. We watched what the kids were up to and cared how the old folks were doing.

I’ve now lived in a Washington neighborhood for almost 40 years. I turned down jobs in other cities mostly because I liked editing the Washingtonian but also because my wife Jean and I wanted our two kids to have a sense of place, of the neighborhood life I had in Appleton and Jean had in a small Connecticut city. It’s living where you know and care about your neighbors and they know and care about you.

I think about this neighborhood sense of place when big city journalists talk about the nation’s urban-rural divide. The urban journalists sometimes make it sound like people who don’t live in Washington, New York, or some other big city are a bunch of farmers so clueless they voted for Donald Trump.

But this so-called urban-rural divide is mostly a fiction. In Wisconsin in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried Milwaukee and Madison—the state’s two biggest cities—by 310,000 votes, while the rest of the state gave Donald Trump a 337,000 vote edge. The Trump voters were not a bunch of farmers. They live in places like Appleton (population now 73,000).

The residents of Appleton and Green Bay (104,000), Kenosha (99,000),  Oshkosh (66,000), and other small and medium-sized cities are not so uninformed that they can’t vote intelligently. They are just not obsessed with daily politics, as many big city journalists are. They’re not reading the Washington Post or New York Times every morning or spending hours scrolling through BuzzFeed and other bad-news digital sites.

Most of my Wisconsin relatives have good lives well outside of politics. They live in or near their hometowns because family is more important to them than going to a big city for a bigger job or more money. A love for your hometown and staying close to family is a virtue that seems to escape many big city journalists.

Most of my Wisconsin relatives would be baffled if they read the Washington Post every morning where reporters and columnists endlessly tell readers what they should be thinking and what they should be outraged about. They would say you big city journalists are the ones out of touch—with real neighborhoods, with hometowns, with real America.

Comments

  1. Rosann Heinritz Sexton says:

    Thank you, Jack, for expressing this!! I’ve lived in rural Vermont for almost 40 years…..your real America!
    I may not agree with our Washington Senators and Representative, but the quality of life here overshadows their politics……
    The big city journalists are definitely out of touch……we, here in the hinterland, ignore them! Our local problems of making our communities attractive for bringing in new businesses and creating jobs is more important to us!!

  2. Avery Comarow says:

    Back in the early ’70s, when I was working for a smallish (~50,000) daily as the lone reporter in a town of about 5,000, filing to the home office a half hour’s drive away, there were times when I had the feeling I was being eyed with amused tolerance by the local residents. Not from around here, they seemed to be thinking. What can he know about our once and forever mayor Jim Ollie, or what it’s like to work for the declining railroad that pretty much supports our economy, or why we don’t especially care for his liberal newspaper but won’t tell him so?

    I didn’t know any of those things, but I learned. Sitting in on planning board and zoning board and town council meetings, listening to the city attorney parse the contract for the new American LaFrance fire engine, taking notes on the proposed expansion of a former military airport, spending time at the diner with candidates for local office–I learned about America.

    Our chief photographer, the elegant Manny Fuchs, loved to expound on the virtues of practicing real journalism, meaning shoe-leather reporting where ordinary people work and live. His words have stayed with me nearly half a century later. I didn’t know, then, how much my few years as a one-person bureau chief in that small town would burrow into my head and expand my universe.

    I don’t think there’s a “real America” or “real Americans,” because it’s a construct which implies that other places or people are less than that, unreal America/Americans. My neighbor a couple of houses away in a well-off suburb of Washington, D.C., look out for each other. We split the cost of a snowblower (ex-Wisconsinites are allowed to curl their lip at seeing snowblower and Washington, D.C. in the same sentence). He helps me move furniture. I get his mail when he’s away. He’s a good guy. We don’t share similar politics, not at all, but we talk about our differences with respect. Are we less real because we live in the shadow of a big-city newspaper, and not in a dot on the map where the chattering classes can’t be heard?

    Just musing, nothing more. Random thoughts, mostly, looking back, triggered by your Appleton memories. Now, compared with my town back then, that would have been the big city….

  3. BARNARD COLLIER says:

    Dear Jack,

    In my experience there are two types of people in the world: The rooted and the rootless.

    You are not rootless. I suspect most of the world’s best editors aren’t.

    Those who are rooted usually put down roots as quick and as deep as they can. They yearn to die and be buried close to “home” among neighbors who do not covet their ass, their spouse, their groceries, their house, and do not bear false witness against them.

    The rootless are air creatures who are windblown and land like thistle down here, there, and anywhere. The wise among the rootless know the importance of good fences and good neighbors, of generosity, tact, and honest respect to win trust, whether their neighbors are in a hamlet in Virginia, in a woods in Idaho, on a dairy farm in Michigan, or an apartment in Brooklyn, Berlin, or Barbados. The rootless, like many reporters, learn the art of being a stranger.

    As time goes by, a side effect of life getting older is inertia. When humans, for whatever reason, settle into a motionless inertia they also tend to put down clutch roots that keep them from roaming too far.

    Together inertia and the resultant rootedness make it difficult for such a person ever again to take flight. I believe that if a rootless person stays put despite a passionate desire to go, it is not because such person needs official psychological permission to move but because of a physical and mental incapacity to do so.

    If you tally the habitations of rooted folk and compare the number to the habitations of the rootless the ratio may be as much as 5to10 times more places are lived in by rootless beings than by rooted ones. The rootless are strangers somewhere for much of their lives.

    Many rootless people have altered the familiar concept of “home” to mean instead a perception of home life not necessarily attached to a particular piece of property. Home to the rootless is often wherever a loved one’s heart is.

    Best,

    Barney

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