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The Problem of Coastal Media Bias in Covering Middle America

What Slate got wrong in its article on the fight against a Costco plant in Fremont, Nebraska

Danny Wilcox Fraizer/VII

An unusual thing happened to me this week. A story that I wrote for The New Republic about the heated dispute over a proposed Costco poultry plant in Fremont, Nebraska, was published on the same day as another story on the same subject, written by Henry Grabar for Slate. It happens. Journalists know that certain microcosms reveal larger narratives; often we pick up the same frequencies. When I started to read the story, though, my concerns had less to do with duplication than a growing unease: Grabar had misjudged the essential story.

Grabar is obviously a serious reporter. He went to Fremont, but more than that: He visited local business owners (white and Hispanic), went to a city council meeting and a meeting of the local Tea Party group, talked to the local Democratic Party chair and the head of the United Food and Commercial Workers, interviewed the head of the subcontractor whose company would run the plant and a sociologist who researches meatpacking towns, visited the farm of a local environmentalist, and called a biologist who studies pollution in the Elkhorn River. He even visited the local Catholic Church. In short, Grabar wore down some serious shoe leather in Fremont. And what he got is interesting and factual and sensitive—and mostly misses the point.

Fremont, Grabar explains, like so many small towns in America, is haunted by the memory of a more prosperous past and is trying to find a way forward. Costco’s investment “could save the town,” he writes, if it welcomes “a plant that is all but certain to bring hundreds more immigrant and refugee families to town.” And yet resistance to Costco persists. Grabar allows Mayor Scott Getzschman to distill the problem: “There’s some people that, regardless of what you do, it’s change, and they don’t want change, period.”

So the situation in Fremont, as Grabar sees it, is that Costco represents progress, in the form of cultural diversity and economic growth, while the townspeople resist out of a mix of racism and dislike of change. That’s certainly how the city government, local economic development board, and the corporate executives at Costco would like you to see it. Grabar largely accepts this view, possibly because it promises a Fremont that looks a little more like the world he knows and understands. “Henry currently lives in his native New York City,” his website bio reads. Not that New Yorkers can’t write about Nebraska, but here, that particular worldview colors the story.

At one point, he theorizes that “rural assimilation can be easier” for immigrants from Latin America, because towns like Fremont “are more similar” to the homes that they have left behind “than frenetic urban neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, and Elmhurst, Queens.” In lumping Latino immigrants into one group and assuming they have one background, Grabar winds up essentializing and reducing the very diversity that he means to celebrate. It’s true that the first waves of immigrants to Fremont came largely from Chichihualco, a tiny mountain village in Guerrero, Mexico, and the central highlands of Guatemala where the Maya speak K’iche’. But neither especially resembles Fremont, Nebraska. More than that, the groups who would likely work at the Costco plant come from even more disparate immigrant groups: Karen people from Burma, many of whom come from camps along the Thai border, and Somalis from war-torn Mogadishu by way of the Dadaab Refugee Complex in southern Kenya. Will their assimilation also be easier in Fremont, a town that rejected its population of undocumented migrants, than it would be in Queens?

People in Fremont live within an hour’s drive of Nebraska’s two largest cities and virtually all of its major cultural institutions. Plenty of people head to Lincoln for Husker football games or to Omaha for the College World Series. They go to concerts at Century Link Center and Pinnacle Arena. They shop at the Westroads Mall in Omaha’s western suburbs and the Nebraska Crossing Outlets in Gretna. And all the while, they are watching Fox News at home, listening to Fox News radio affiliates in the car, and scrolling through Facebook on their phones.

In short, they’re much like people everywhere else in this country—except that many of them have chosen to live in Fremont not only for its proximity to modern comforts but also its remove from modern diversity. Which is to say: Fremont should not be treated like some uncontacted tribe in the Amazon but rather like an apocalyptic cult whose members are threatening suicide rather than live in a world they now denounce. Expecting to see the positive effects of more diversity in a town that has already spent a decade affirming and reaffirming their rejection of immigrants by legal means, even if it comes with stiff financial costs, is to completely misjudge how deeply ingrained this kind of racism is and, worse still, to misunderstand where it comes from.

Grabar says that immigrants have “changed the town’s identity.” I would argue that the latest wave of immigrants has merely revealed, yet again, Fremont’s complex response to outsiders of all stripes. The city shut down German-language newspapers and banned speaking German in public during World War I. Midland College, founded by German Lutherans in Kansas, was also welcomed to Fremont in 1919. Fremont was one of the centers of KKK activity in the 1920s; the town’s state senator also introduced anti-Klan legislation. The Hormel union provided economic stability for Fremont’s workers; one of its founders also explained that the union was formed when Hormel “hired 40 niggers,” so “we got clubs ... and we run them out.” And, of course, Fremont has seen its ethnic diversity boom in the last 25 years, and the town’s people responded by passing an anti-immigrant ordinance.

Accepting Fremont’s whiteness as a state of nature rather than a constructed and enforced reality is to accept the racist myth of rural white homogeneity. In fact, the demographic makeup of Fremont, as the next stop up the Platte River from Omaha, is and has always been much more in flux than most rural places. That’s why there are conflicts. To make some generic call for “change” plays into the false narrative that they haven’t always been changing and stokes the Middle American paranoia that the coasts are judging and trying to “correct” them—when, in fact, the most recent throes of racist fervor in Fremont is anything but homegrown.

Grabar, in discussing Fremont’s ordinance, never mentions that Bob Warner, the city councilman who first proposed the city’s anti-immigration ordinance, got the idea after seeing a story about an immigration raid in Postville, Iowa, on Fox News. Grabar never mentions that the ordinance was authored by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who became a key anti-immigration advisor to Donald Trump’s campaign and is now the head of Trump’s commission bent on national voter suppression. Grabar doesn’t mention that Fremonters who oppose the plant over worries about bringing in Somali workers almost universally talk about what they have seen on Fox News or Breitbart or Facebook.

Proposing that that kind of fomented rage can be overcome by simply bringing in thousands of Somali neighbors is not only naïve but irresponsible. When Tyson brought hundreds of Somali workers into Emporia, Kansas, in 2006, the town was seized by anti-Muslim bigotry. The wild rumors and threats of violence grew so fevered that Tyson finally closed the plant and relocated workers to Garden City, Kansas, in 2007. Last year, as I noted in an earlier story for The New Republic, the FBI alleged that a group of white supremacists from nearby Liberal, Kansas, fueled by growing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, plotted to blow up the apartment complex where many of those same Somali workers live with a massive Timothy McVeigh-style truck bomb.

The problem, in other words, isn’t that Fremont is disconnected from the world and is just in need of some diversity; the problem is that it is all too connected—but to false narratives. To champion meatpacking companies as agents of cultural diversification is both to give them undue credit and to put the workforce that they already exploit at further risk.

One last thing. On Wednesday, on Twitter, I signaled my intention to raise these kinds of issues and to encourage Henry Grabar to enter into conversation with me about how all journalists can do better. That goes for me, too. I welcome Grabar’s, and anyone’s critiques of my work. (This includes Slate’s own Jordan Weissman, who tweeted at me, “calling bullshit,” on my criticism of Grabar’s article. “Darting in, pulling rank as a local . . . is crap,” he wrote, adding that I was “pompous” and “deeply lame.”) As much as I believe that Grabar is blinkered by a remote worldview, my own understanding of Fremont is perhaps colored by too much familiarity.

After covering Fremont’s continuing immigration disputes for more than seven years now, I often feel a kind of despair at telling the same story again and again. Fremont-native Blake Harper, who I interviewed for my book The Chain (about one-third of which is set in Fremont) tweeted to me: “I love your work, @TedGenoways. But I’m burnt out. I don’t think I can handle yet another story about rampant stupidity in Fremont.” I know how he feels and that, too, is a kind of bias.

But when Grabar writes that “deregulation and factory farming” are “bringing good news” to towns like Storm Lake, Iowa, and Garden City, Kansas, it makes people like me wonder. Does he not know that the editor of the Storm Lake Times won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his coverage of issues surrounding the devastating effects of nitrate pollution from cropland on the town’s drinking water?* Does he not know that Garden City was nearly the site of a horrifying anti-Muslim terrorist attack? When he writes that this “good news” is especially visible in Schuyler, Nebraska, does he not know that the high school’s nearly all-Hispanic basketball team spent its entire season last year facing opposing crowds who waved Trump campaign signs and shouted racist slurs and chanted “Build that wall!,” all through their games?

When Donald Trump was elected president, the national news media committed to more coverage of the “heartland” areas that put him in office. I’m pleased to see Slate undertaking long-form narrative pieces about a place like Fremont. But if you really want to understand what’s happening in the so-called Real America, you have to be able to put aside coastal biases and take a long, hard look.

Correction: *This article originally stated that the Storm Lake Times won a Pulitzer prize for its coverage of water pollution caused by hog barns.