Press Box

The “New” Journalism

Texas is no longer dominated by oil rigs, cattle ranches, and a gun-toting, yee-hawing citizenry, the New Republic’s Benjamin Soskis reports. It’s a diverse place of suburbs and urban sprawl, utterly transformed by high-tech industry and out-of-staters. “Texas is becoming more like the rest of the nation than anyone, Texan or non-Texan, wants to admit,” he marvels in the cover story now on the newsstands, “Why Texas Isn’t Texas Anymore.”

Soskis isn’t the first political reporter to discover the “new” character of the provinces beyond the Beltway and Manhattan. During the 1988 campaign, the Washington Post’s Henry Allen stumbled upon the “new New Hampshire,” a state that had gone “malltown from milltown.” The same year, the AP gasped at New Hampshire’s “high-tech companies” and “suburban sprawl.” For the 2000 campaign, the Los Angeles Times’ Maria L. LaGanga was among the first reporters to rely on the “new” boilerplate. The “New Iowa,” she wrote, was now home to more high-tech businesses, more immigrants, and fewer cornfields. Susan Feeney of the Dallas Morning News offered the “new New Hampshire”: a booming high-tech economy dominated by urban sprawl and out-of-state workers. Feeney put a scholarly gloss on the cliché by quoting a political scientist who said, “New Hampshire is becoming a little bit more like the rest of the country,” presaging Soskis’ Texas findings. Leslie Eaton of the New York Times and Mark Sappenfield of the Christian Science Monitor also found Cow Hampshire overrun by high-tech industry and outsiders. Sappenfield dug up his own poli-sci expert to say, “New Hampshire is going to grow closer to America.”

As the campaign moved to other states, the journalistic pack detected signs that these places, too, were becoming more like America. David Von Drehle of the Washington Post wrote that the “new South Carolina” was more than “the old birthplace of the Confederacy.” It was a “showplace for the global economy” with a “burgeoning suburbia.” Steven Thomma of the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau gaped at South Carolina’s “congested highways,” “chain stores and malls,” and “new suburbs and condos,” not to mention the out-of-state newcomers and the concerns about sprawl. “The popular perception that Michigan elections are still dominated by legions of auto workers toting lunch pails is as dated as a Chevrolet Citation,” wrote the New York Times’ Keith Bradsher. The new Michigan had a “new economy” with “high-tech professionals,” many of whom were, you guessed it, newcomers (but no mention of whether they were concerned about sprawl).

And on and on it has gone, through Virginia and Washington, through New England and the South on Super Tuesday, until reaching Texas, where Kenneth T. Walsh of U.S. News & World Report beat Soskis to the “new Texas” punch in May: More diversity, more urban residents and, lo and behold, high-tech workers and a booming economy. “It used to be that Texas was considered very different from the rest of the country,” historian Michael Beschloss told the magazine.

Who are these hacks? Why do they insist on filing these “new” stories every four years? One possibility is that they’re coastal provincials whose understanding of the flyover territory is so superficial they don’t realize they’re debunking long-discredited stereotypes. Another is that they’re just too lazy to bother checking the archive before writing a story. In that case, where are their editors, who are supposed to serve as a publication’s institutional memory? They’re the ones who should be telling bored reporters tired of listening to stump speeches that suburbs and strip malls just aren’t newsworthy.

The real shame is how easy it would be to give these stories the perspective they lack. As a March Des Moines Register editorial on Iowa’s changing countryside put it: “There is nothing new about the New Iowa. Although its cumulative effects are more visible now, the shift in population from rural to urban areas has been an inexorable trend for at least a half century.” Is one sentence of depth too much to ask?