Thursday, May 10, 2007

Cab-driver Journalism 

Some interesting posts today about the conceit of rich, white, old political journalists who think they are "men of the people".
Glenn Greenwald writes:
Claims that one's own views are what 'Americans think,' when unaccompanied by empirical data, are worthless. And patronizingly joining the 'real people' in a coffee shop a few times a year is meaningless. It certainly does not make one qualified to speak on behalf of anyone.
Digby follows up:
[These journalists have] a sort of pre-conceived notion of what defines "the people" that appears to have been formed by TV sit-coms in 1955 . . . invariably these middle-aged white men say the country is going to hell in a handbasket and they want the government to do more and they hate paying taxes . . . Meanwhile, someone like me, who lives in a big city on the west coast and who doesn't hang out in diners with middle aged white men are used as an example of the "fringe" even though I too am one of "the people" as are many others --- like hispanic youths or single urban mothers or dot-com millionaires or elderly southern black granddads or Korean entrepreneurs
What Greenwald and Digby are describing is what I call "cab-driver journalism" and it works like this:
a reporter from Washington or Toronto flies into Podunk, Nebraska or Riverwart, Alberta or even a city like Los Angeles or Halifax to cover something -- maybe a political convention or a space launch or a missing white woman or a big storm or a trial or whatever.
And the first thing he does is hop into a cab to get to his hotel from the airport.
And on the way into town, usually a half-hour trip or more, he invariably asks the cab driver what he thinks about the convention/space launch/missing woman/storm/trial/whatever. And so the cab driver tells him.
And chances are, this will be the ONLY actual citizen the reporter ever talks to -- unless he hops another cab to go somewhere else -- because everyone else he meets, from the desk clerk to the waitress to the doorman to the office secretary, is busy working and they don't have time.
So then the reporter writes a sidebar story, beginning something like "People in Podunk are getting tired of ______ already and ____ hasn't even started yet. They're wondering why the government would spend a dime on _____"
And then when the reporter goes home, he spends the next several months telling his co-workers things like "When I was in Podunk, people were saying.....", to the point that he eventually believes he really did talk to a lot of people there.
Personally, just about everything I know about Nashville, and Seattle, and Detroit, and Boulder, and Boston, and London, Ontario, and Fredrickton, and Toronto, I learned from cab drivers.
In retrospect, though some of the rides certainly were interesting, and the stories I heard certainly amusing, I doubt that I have a particularly broad or well- informed view of those cities or what their people think.
So next time some pundit starts writing about what the people of your town "really think", don't be surprised if it sounds just like the yap you heard during your last cab ride.

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