Wick Communications

Illusion of asymmetrical insight

In journalism on 16 May 2018 at 10:48 am

James and Deborah Fallows in conversation with Lenny Mendonca on May 15, 2018.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a Commonwealth Club of Silicon Valley discussion with authors James and Deborah Fallows. (Commonwealth Club board member Lenny Mendonca invited me and I quickly accepted.) The Fallows have written a book called “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.”

Before I say any more, I haven’t yet read the book, which came out last week. The Fallows are thoroughly impressive people with a long list of accomplishments. They are persuasive optimists and it was an uplifting, interesting hour or so of conversation.

The premise of their book is this: Pilot a single-prop airplane into small airports the rest of us fly over. Stop in places like Greenville, S.C., and Sioux Falls, S.D. Look for stories other reporters miss. They admit — as if this is something terrible — they wanted to find stories of success and renewal in the heartland. Consequently, that’s what they found.

James Fallows is a media veteran and the writer of more than a dozen books. When he mentioned an “asymmetrical bias” as a problem for many coastal reporters, he knows of what he speaks. He maintains that “the media” thinks of large coastal cities as places of terrific innovation, dynamic arts, diverse communities — in short, all the good things for which America is known. What does the media leave for flyover country? Racism, addiction, poverty.

His critique is not without merit. Turn on the TV and watch the discussion on cable news. Before long, you’ll hear reference to this dichotomy. Red states and blue states. Us and them. Good and bad. …

So, the Fallows set out to temper that by staying a little longer than Anderson Cooper might. They talked to librarians and nurses and the real people who populate real towns. They found diverse, relatively small communities where people worked and lived and didn’t obsess over the national political rhetoric.

Theirs was an admirable exercise and I’m looking forward to reading the book. However…

This asymmetrical insight bias works both ways. There is likely underlying racism tugging at the seams in Sioux Falls, where the Fallows noted so many Somali refugees working side by side with their American neighbors. The Fallows said the opioid crisis was observable and probably the worst problem they saw in middle America. But I don’t think they linger on it or jobs lost to obsolete industries and the like. And there may be bias simply in the kinds of towns with FBO airports that allowed for their exercise. What if, instead of Greenville, S.C., they had stopped in Hampton, S.C., a town I once parachuted into as a reporter? I had come to write about a medical waste incinerator that welcomed tractor-trailers full of red-bag waste from across the eastern seaboard. One neighbor told me his dog once brought home a human femur. Decades later, I remember the guy whose job it was to shovel ash from underneath the incinerator, which was housed in a metal building baking in the summer sun. Every time I think of my own career troubles, I think of that guy working to bury the ghosts of civilization elsewhere. I certainly didn’t see the idyllic South Carolina that day.

If we really want to know what is happening in these small towns, I have a suggestion: ask reporters who live there to do the reporting. Perhaps a more complete picture might have been written by local reporters contributing chapters describing their towns. Or maybe that could be the basis for a companion website to accompany “Our Towns.” Asymmetrical insight bias is everywhere, including among those of us who recognize it.

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