Editorial: You don’t know us
One of the first lessons a journalist should learn is that writing and reporting are two different skill sets, and to succeed in the news game, you have to be good at both.
That was the lesson that sprang to mind as we read an article published Jan. 20 in USA Today, an article which — under the promise of a look inside Trump country — instead delivered a caricature that unfairly casts the people of Craig and Moffat County in a pretty unflattering light. The article’s author, Trevor Hughes, is an undeniably gifted writer, but as we ponder the words he had for us, we find ourselves questioning his skills as a reporter.
Beneath the headline “In Trump country, Republicans cheer on shutdown: The ‘government is our biggest enemy,’” Hughes couches his reporting in a series of observations about Craig and Moffat County that coalesce to suggest our town and our county are peopled by pockets of backwoods hicks who care nothing about the government shutdown or the simmering, partisan fury that’s slowly fracturing our nation.
And sadly, the tainted perspective he presents is much of the fuel behind the mistaken perception that residents of coal country are, by default, ignorant, backwards, and selfish.
“In this low-slung Western town that still celebrates cowboys and cattle rustlers, Christmas and Christ, and where the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants bracket the broad valley, residents wonder aloud: Doesn’t the shutdown prove their long-held argument that the federal government is too big, too powerful and too expensive?” Hughes writes.
Substantively, the paragraph contains very little we can take exception to. Yes, we celebrate our Western heritage; yes, we honor our religious convictions; and yes, we do these things as our coal-fired “smokestacks” (just for the record, Mr. Hughes, that’s not smoke you noticed rising from Craig Station — it’s vapor) provide reliable power for countless American households.
In another passage, Mr. Hughes writes: “For many Craig residents, the shutdown remains mostly abstract: The federal government isn’t a big employer here, and people are mostly worried about how air-quality regulations are slowly squeezing the life out of the coal mines and power plants. That helps explain the popularity of GOP candidates, where voting for Republicans comes as naturally as breathing, regardless of how you feel about the president. This is a town where pickups and SUVs rule the roads and renewable energy is often scorned as unreliable and unproven.”
Here, the inaccuracies grow a little more glaring.
The federal government isn’t a big employer in Moffat County?
We’re pretty sure the furloughed employees with the at least nine federal agencies who make their homes in Northwest Colorado would disagree with you there. It’s true we tend to vote Republican here, and while we are open to new ideas, we are not yet convinced of claims that renewable energy is ready to replace fossil fuels as our primary source of power. But we hardly see how our preference for SUVs and pickup trucks has anything to do with that. Mostly, we drive those types of vehicles because they make sense in our mountainous biome, where winter sometimes drags on for five or six months.
Our vehicular choices are irrelevant, yet the image of cowboy-hat-wearing, Bible-thumping, environment-wrecking coal miners roaring around the Yampa Valley in jacked up trucks fits your narrative, a narrative that, frankly, seeks to paint us as the very worst America has to offer.
We could go on, but the outright factual inaccuracies in the article aren’t at the crux of our objections to it. As we said in the beginning, our problems with the article are mostly its tone, its timbre, and it’s apparent deliberate attempt to jam us into a narrow box that fits the desired narrative, but doesn’t fit who we really are.
Frankly, Mr. Hughes, you don’t know us, and you err when you pretend to. We realize your primary readership will probably gleefully consume this article and from it, undergird their already skewed impressions of us.
But those impressions are incomplete and erroneous, and that’s unfortunate.
If, instead of drawing stereotypical caricatures to confirm your preconceived notions of us, you’d taken the time during your visit to really get to know us, you might have seen that we care deeply about many things that have nothing to do with coal mines or power plants or President Donald J. Trump.
Mostly, we care about each other, and that caring extends to our visitors, even to visitors like yourself, who seem to have come to our town only to gather fodder for a hatchet job.
So, again, sir, you are an excellent writer, but based on this article, you’re not a very good reporter.
If you’re interested in using your impressive writing skills to craft an accurate story about us, we invite you to return to Craig for another visit. But if you decide to do this, we hope it will be with an open mind and a commitment to write the story the facts suggest, not the story you already wrote in your mind before you ever set foot in our town.
The fact is, you failed to do your research, and you wrote a lazy article that does nothing but perpetuate a myth and widen the growing rift that threatens to tear our country to pieces.
Regardless of how well you write, facts must always inform conclusions, not the other way around.
We hope you’ll remember that going forward.