I have lived in at least a dozen states in my lifetime, ranging from San Francisco to Birmingham. I spent most of my twenties as a stand-up, so I've been to all 50 states and maybe a couple of dozen countries. But I live in the Twin Cities because I like being a step or two away from the casual elitist behavior that passes for culture on much of both coasts. There is a dismissive streak in many American's impressions about the Midwest that I find infuriating. It's not just that they see places like the Twin Cities as "flyover country." They begin to believe that ignoring everything between Pennsylvania and Las Vegas is a rational lifestyle choice.
I accustomed to reading idiotic pieces about the Midwest that feign surprise that we're not a bunch of just-off-the-farm rubes or a bunch of gun-toting, truck-driving hayseeds. But this Eric Lutz piece in Salon must set some new journalistic record for its ability to be clueless and insulting.
The piece is entitled "Travels with right-wing nuts: My road trip on Route GOP with Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann" and rather than try and properly frame his intent, let's just read this short excerpt from the article:
I’ve come here from Chicago on a sort of anthropological mission: Over the next four days, I’ll see Paul Ryan’s congressional district in southern Wisconsin, Michele Bachmann’s district in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, and Steve King’s district in western Iowa – a 1,200 mile drive across the Midwest in search of the region’s secrets. I’m not sure what I expect to find, but I hope visiting these places, and trying to understand them, will shed some light on the political right wing currently waging war on the federal government — or at least paint a portrait of the culture they were birthed from.
The premise of the piece alone has enough journalistic holes in it to stop most news organizations from running the piece. He's driving across three states that are politically diverse and not all that much alike demographically. And yet, he's combining them together because it's an easy hook and a much simpler task than actually examining why politicians such as Michelle Bachmann have been successful. It's so much easier just to do a road trip and recount a few stories about those wacky natives you meet along the way.
The piece is what you would expect to read from a writer more interested in talking about himself and the trip than about anything he's learned along the way. Take this passage about his drive to Sioux City, in which he drives through a winter snow storm that could, gasp, "KILL HIM"
Fifty miles more on I-90, followed by 100 on MN-60. My estimated arrival time, measured of course by iPhone app, goes from 7:15 to 7:30 to 8:00 to 9:00 as the conditions slow my pace. Meanwhile, it gets harder and harder to see. Turning on the high beams only makes the snow into an opaque wall. Wind blows it across the road and obscures the exit signs.
It occurs to me that I could die out here.
I think about death a lot. Probably more than a healthy 25-year-old should. Always wondering how it’s going to happen, and when. But this is different. This is actual danger. The snow is falling hard. The roads are unplowed. Save for the occasional semi speeding by, there are almost no other cars out here. I’m alone – I literally don’t know anybody for 300 miles. I’m scared shitless.
It’s easily the worst weather I’ve ever driven through, made all the worse by its unexpectedness. I can barely make out the bend of the road ahead of me, so I’m using my iPhone as a guide. I’m a pilot, flying on instruments; I’m tired, but I’ve never been more awake.
It goes like this for another two hours.
It's at this point in the article when I realize that either Salon doesn't have any editors or the editorial process has been off-shored to some winning low-cost bid halfway around the world. Because anyone who gave the slightest damn about publishing a snark-free story would have sent this piece back for a massive rewrite.
By the end of the piece, Lutz has seen a few pro-Republican signs, heard a couple of unpleasant stories and used the trip to recall the moment when he heard President Obama speak in Iowa in 2008. He thinks back on that moment as when he became open to believing....blah, blah, blah.
In the end, I'm not sure what this piece is supposed to be. As a road trip piece, it doesn't offer up any insights. And it doesn't do the job of connecting the author's discontent with the mood in any of the three states. It's just a muddled mess of casual observations combined with tired political observations. It's just another example of a journalist's inability to get control of the story he's supposed to be writing.